Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara was on the minds of Cubans and the entire world while leading a brave effort against communist tyranny. But then the Castro regime finally found a way to bury him.
How much impact does Luis Manuel have now?
There was a time, not long ago, when Cubans were glued to every word that came out of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s mouth. And everything that went in. His statements, hunger strike and thirst strikes kept the regime and the dissidents on edge, intriguing Cubans on the streets of the island who before seemed indifferent, as well as those in the diaspora who had little faith.
In a matter of months, Luis Manuel was transformed from the naive boy wondering where Mella was — founder of the local communist party amidst the imported capitalism of the Karpensky Block (formerly Gomez) — to becoming the author of the country’s most renowned performances, including the bold move of referring to the president — no less imposed than Karpensky capitalism —a s “El Singao” (The F^cker) from then on.
During those months, Luis Manuel went from being a co-founder — alongside Yanelys Nuñez Leyva — of the phantasmagorical Museum of Dissidence to the earthly San Isidro Movement, gathering a growing number of allies and followers. He became the protagonist of a national soap opera, determined to forever bind the country to his girlfriend, Liberty.
By then, every word, every gesture from Luis Manuel was measured, dissected, weighed. Each of his hunger strikes was followed by police operations, debates about their timing or legitimacy, and protests across the world.
That November 27th, with the siege of the Ministry of Culture, kept all Cubans with internet access on edge. It was in response to the police raid the day before at the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters and the arrest of its leader, disguised as a hospital admission.
Each of Luis Manuel’s arrests was accompanied by such uproar that it seemed impossible for the regime to confine him for too long, not even when imprisonment came disguised as a hospital stay, as a mere concern for his health.
Until July 11, 2021.
On the day when it seemed like all Cubans took to the streets to protest against the regime, Luis Manuel, the eternal rebel, was not among the demonstrators. He, who had announced it in a livestream months before (“the government has already fallen, we just need to realize it”), didn’t get the chance to lead his prophecy.
Like José Daniel Ferrer, the UNPACU leader at the other end of the country, Luis Manuel had barely stepped out onto the streets before he was arrested. His pursuers must have been very convinced that this monster, who was the rage of the people, couldn’t get anywhere without people talking about him.
In the following weeks, the regime found a formula to stop people talking about Luis Manuel, Maykel Osorbo, José Daniel Ferrer.
After showing months earlier that they could incite entire neighborhoods to rebel with their presence, acts, and shouts, the regime discovered it was enough to bury them under hundreds of other Cubans as brave and desperate as them, but tragically anonymous.
From then on, it was an indecency to demand the freedom of a few when hundreds were imprisoned. That was part of the Castro regime’s plan. To apply, at the level of incarceration, the genocidal principle attributed to Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.”
The vast majority of us Cubans have grown up educated in the Marxist-Leninist theory that the masses are the engines of history and that personalities, if anything, play a secondary role. As if Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, or Hitler were merely incarnations of the will of their respective peoples.
Whether Marxist-Leninism is right or not doesn’t matter. What’s certain is that, no matter how much they insist on it, their leaders never applied it to themselves: from Lenin to Stalin, from Kim Il Sung to Mengisto Haile Mariam, from Ceaucescu to Enver Hoxha, from Mao Zedong to Fidel Castro. Ironically, since the Enlightenment devoted itself to toppling the idols of faith, no system cultivated more idolatry for its leaders than those inspired by dialectical materialism.
Since its start by its founder, Castroism, while renouncing personality cults, took great care to underline the supernatural status of its leader. From considering himself the fulfiller of the prophecies of the Apostle of the Cubans. From the doves perched on his shoulder in his triumphant speech in Havana, announcing the new Messiah; to the meticulousness in ensuring no one around him seemed taller than he did. (It’s said that Abel Prieto always had to stand one step lower in photographs where he appeared with his Commander in Chief).
It is true that shortly after the revolution’s triumph, the most famous Castro forbade dedicating images to the revolution’s leaders. But what initially seemed like an act of humility was, in the dry substance of the acts, a way to better control the image projecting his power, starting by eliminating the possibility of being caricatured.
It is also true Fidel Castro didn’t indulge in statues, as Stalin, Mao, or Kim Il Sung did. But why waste bronze when you can paper an entire country with your words? When historians don’t publish a book without citing you in the opening epigraph? When the initial letter of your name is enshrined as children learn to write it? And all of the above couldn’t be considered, under any circumstances, as a personality cult.
If Castroism has been careful with the image of its founder, it is equally so with its adversaries, albeit in the opposite direction: every possible effort is made to degrade them, diminish their value, not only as political figures but as human beings.
Ricardo Bofill, founder of the Cuban human rights movement, was mostly known to Cubans in the ’80s through Granma and official television. He was accused of every possible crime, including stealing communion wine from the priest when he was an altar boy (which didn’t prevent him from joining the Communist Party of Cuba before being expelled during the so-called “micro-infraction” offensive). The campaign was so effective that it’s still hard to mention Bofill’s name without associating it with the epithet “El Fullero” (The Cheater), which was attributed to him in the official media, the only sources accessible to us back then.
Fidel Castro loved to repeat Marti’s proverb that a just idea from the depths of a cave is worth more than an army. In the mouth of the re-founder of Cuban communism, the phrase contained a couple of contradictions. On the one hand, such confidence in the justice of an idea denied the materialist he claimed to be. On the other hand, he repeated that phrase not from the depths of a cave, but in front of the multiple microphones that crowned the podium of the Cuban army’s Commander in Chief.
The place where dissenters of his regime speak from is much closer to the depths of a cave. Whether it’s the cell in any of the nearly three hundred prisons in the country, or from the ramshackle apartment serving as a social headquarters in Old Havana. Or from a movement besieged by the police, or the apartment atop a micro-brigade building where an independent newspaper is forged.
As much as they commend the virtues of materialism, communists have always known that not everything can be explained by the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Sometimes, just ideas and carefully curated images can tip the balance of power in one direction or the other.
If Stalin studied in a Russian Orthodox seminary, Fidel Castro also received his dose of Christian education in the Dolores and Belén schools. All his subsequent Marxism wasn’t enough to erase from his memory and his political instincts the example of the poor preacher who, with barely a handful of followers, created the force that, years later, would overthrow the most powerful empire the earth had known, spreading thereafter across the globe.
Stalin, Castro, and their followers, feeling more akin to Roman emperors and their prefects than to any poor preacher with sublime aspirations, never underestimated the threat posed by any preacher willing to live defending a just idea. Hence, their seemingly disproportionate fervor against those whom through no rational explanation, including that of dialectical materialism, would suffice to perceive as a serious threat.
Meanwhile, here we are, those of us who once followed the adventures of Luis Manuel or Ferrer like a soap opera, who endured their temporary imprisonments with unbearable despair, accustomed to the imprisonment of over a thousand of our bravest compatriots, not knowing what to do with their nearly 900 days of confinement.
If demanding the freedom of their leaders seems an attack against the democratic conviction they defend, doing so for the over thousand still in prison seems as unstimulating as any statistic. Meanwhile, Castroism, fully aware of its strength as well as its weaknesses, doesn’t let up. If the thousand imprisoned Cubans serve to intimidate the rest of the population, the handful of imprisoned leaders — Luis Manuel, Ferrer, Maykel — is the guarantee that the body of the people’s dissatisfaction, their yearnings for freedom and prosperity, won’t lead to anything until they find their heads.