When Denis Solís, a singer and rapper, was arrested by Cuban police on November 9, he was dragged out of bed and his head was slammed against the hood of the officers’ car, according to witnesses. As the car sped away with Solís inside, one of his shoes was left behind on the street.
Solís - the newest member of dissident group the San Isidro Movement, a coalition of artists demanding greater freedom of expression - is now at the center of a protest movement that was since granted a rare audience with the governing Communist Party, which has a long history of little tolerance for open protests.
Solís was trailed by police for a week before three officers appeared in his living room. After shouting insults at them and resisting arrest, he was charged with contempt and sentenced to eight months in prison.
The San Isidro Movement later gained international admirers on November 26 when government officials wearing medical gowns stormed the group’s apartment in Old Havana. Shaky clips of video taken discreetly at the scene show the officers lead fourteen activists into cars by the elbows while a crowd of bystanders cheers. Two of the movement’s leaders walked as if zombies, having completed an eight day hunger strike to demand Solís’ release from jail.
For twenty minutes that night - as the apartment was being raided - Facebook and Instagram went dark across the island. Internet access is weak and expensive in Cuba, though most are able to buy small packages of cellular data each month, allowing them to communicate through Whatsapp and Facebook. The government has authority over which websites are visible to the island’s population because web access is controlled by the state .
“They know what they’re doing. They know what works… Facebook has been very effective for our cause, ” Iris Ruíz, an actress and the chief coordinator for the San Isidro Movement, told VICE World News.
“In 2009, when I was working with a different group, they expelled us from the house with a big police brigade, just like they did last night. It was more violent then. The only reason this time received more attention was because of social media.”
On the morning after the apartment raid, Granma, Cuba’s largest state-run newspaper, published a story about the arrest of what it alleged were a band of criminals conspiring with the U.S. government and under suspicion of spreading COVID-19. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, were awash in support of those detained in the raid, including messages of solidarity from public figures usually distanced from politics, including Cuban music titans like Gente de Zona and a journalist with a state-owned news source, Telecubanacán.
“They [the government] made such a mistake. There’s no going back from this.” Yasser Castellanos, a member of the San Isidro Movement, said in a livestream on Facebook.
For nearly a year, ten members of the San Isidro Movement have protested every day outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana. Though ten protesters multiplied to over 300 the day after the raid, Lisa Glidden, a professor at State University of New York who studies Cuban dissident movements, said “Rap music in Cuba has been critical of the regime for the past decade… Yeah there’s no way this could topple the government.”
However, the Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas invited thirty activists inside the gates for a meeting, a rare acknowledgement of the dissidents’ existence from the government, as protesters shot videos, and thousands watched from their phones across the island and around the world.
The vice minister agreed to weekly talks with a group of the artists and promised the protesters they would be allowed to make their way home that night, and assemble in other public spaces, without guaranteed arrest.
“The most difficult part of this struggle is connecting with people internally, informing them…The fact that the minister of culture requested to speak because of the pressure from these artists - that for us is a lot. We see it as a small step towards success.” said Iris Ruíz.
The next day, the Cuban government organized a gathering of over 500 supporters, with Cuban President Miguel Díaz Canel in attendance.
The San Isidro Movement is planning a new strategy to reach out to a wider, less engaged portion of the Cuban public as part of their mission to topple the regime.
Abu Duyanah Tamayo, a member of the movement detained in the raid, said: “We want everything to change, but we hope at least they will stop criminalizing protests. We want a different country, but we will settle for them letting us express ourselves freely.”