Playwright is in exile as Cuba uses an old playbook to quash dissent
By Nicholas Casey
For Yunior García, a Cuban playwright, the swift journey from activism in Havana to exile in Madrid might have been lifted from one of his scripts.
It began with the decapitated pigeons at his doorstep, placed there, he suspects, by agents of Cuba’s Communist government to scare him. Then a pro-regime crowd, scores strong, surrounded his home to shame him. He secretly secured a visa for Spain, he said, and contacts whisked him first to a safe house, then to Havana’s airport.
And just like that, García, one of the rising stars in the opposition demonstrations that have rocked Cuba this year, was gone.
“I’m not made of bronze or marble, and I am not riding a white horse,” García, 39, told reporters at a news conference in Madrid on Nov.18, a day after his arrival, saying he feared imprisonment and didn’t want to be a martyr. “I am a person who is afraid, with fears and with worries.”
It was a dispiriting loss — some even called it a betrayal — for Cuba’s pro-democracy protesters who had managed to channel decades of anger over economic failures and desperation caused by the pandemic into a moment not seen before on the island: a movement on the streets, organized on smartphones and social media, that drew Cubans by the thousands to demand change.
But that all came to a halt Nov. 15 when state security agents scuttled a nationwide protest. And days later, one of the movement’s best-known leaders, García, was sitting in Spain.
To many, García’s predicament heralded a return to the Cuban government’s playbook of suppressing dissidents, which reached heights in the 1980s and 2000s. Critics were intimidated into fleeing the country or, in some cases, forced out.
“There is this kind of recurring, cyclical phenomenon: Discredit those voices, silence them, intimidate them,” said Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at Baruch College in New York who studies Cuba.
But this new generation of exiles is different.
They are young writers, artists and musicians who, for a time, were en
couraged by Cuba’s opening up, even promoting their talents to the world.
Less than a decade ago, Cuba’s leaders talked of a need for change, even for limited criticism of the system. The country eliminated the exit visa, allowing Cubans to travel without official permission and letting a younger generation pursue education abroad. It made a deal with the United States to reestablish ties, with provisions to expand the flow of information.
Hamlet Lavastida, a 38-year-old Cuban artist, was among those who had taken advantage of the loosened restrictions. After living in Poland for several years, he went to Germany in 2020 to take up an artist residency. His work often took aim at the Cuban state: In May, he exhibited a piece made of cutout paper that included another Cuban artist’s confession under interrogation by authorities.
After Lavastida returned to Havana in June, authorities arrested him and took him to an interrogation facility, where he was held for three months without charge. He said he contracted COVID-19 there, with agents repeatedly questioning him about his artwork and saying he was a terrorist.
“‘Do you know who Tony Blinken is?’ they would ask,” said Lavastida, referring to Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state. Cuba’s government has accused the dissidents of acting on behalf of the United States, which it says is fostering unrest to overthrow the government.
In September, the government forced Lavastida onto a plane bound for Poland, where he has a son. Now back in Berlin, he was charged in Cuba this fall with incitement.
Mónica Baró, a 33-year-old independent journalist who left Cuba this year for Madrid, said the recent pattern echoed the Black Spring crackdown of 2003, when the government imprisoned 75 dissidents and journalists.
This time, however, the government is using tactics that attract less media attention, Baró said. For example, rather than sentencing government critics outright to prison, authorities have detained them for stretches at a time, in an effort to “destabilize everyone emotionally — you and your family,” she said.
García made his name in the small but growing world of Cuban theater, pioneering a style in which he would write short scripts that were then used as the basis for improvisation. Many of his works centered on his own story as a dissident artist.
One play, “Jacuzzi,” told the stories of three Cubans — a dissident, a Communist and an apathetic young woman — as they discuss life and politics in a hot tub. Performances of the play, which premiered in 2017, were allowed in Cuba, although during Havana’s biggest theater festival, it was ordered to be performed in a theater that was hard to reach, he said.
Hopes of greater change from thawed U.S.-Cuban relations dimmed under the Trump administration, which aggressively rolled back most of the ties that had been remade between the countries, dealing a damaging blow to the Cuban economy.
By the start of this year, the pandemic was also straining the country’s vaunted health care system.
In July, hunger and blackouts ignited a wave of demonstrations, as thousands took to the streets in a show of defiance not seen in the six decades since the Cuban revolution. The government responded by arresting hundreds.
García had hoped to mobilize protests again this fall. He and other activists started Archipiélago, a Facebook forum whose membership grew to more than 38,000. They called for a new round of protests to be held Nov. 15, the day Cuba was set to allow foreign tourists to enter again.
García found himself in the crosshairs.
In Spain, García has found welcome.
On Thursday, he walked into a pizza restaurant where he was embraced by the owner, Eduardo López, who had left Cuba decades before, when he was 22.
“I was hoping you would come here. I had prayed for it,” he said.
García sat down and glanced at the menu. He said he wanted to return to Cuba.
It wasn’t clear when that would be, if ever.