The defenselessness to which Castroism subjects the Cuban nation has spurred a considerable number of people to demand their rights through hunger strikes; the one that that Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara began last Sunday, April 25 adds another chapter to the history of those who have used this method of struggle in the defense of freedom.
Pedro Luis Boitel is the best-known case of those who have gone on a hunger strikes during his political imprisonment back in the early 70s, taking it to its final, tragic consequence. According to the book El presidio político en Cuba comunista (ICOSOCV, Caracas, 1982), Boitel went on several protracted fasts between 1968 and May 25, 1972, when he died of hunger protesting against the humiliating conditions his jailers sought to impose on him.
The 1990s would see a resurgence in the pro-democracy movement on the island, as the horrors that Castroism unleashed to preserve political power resuscitated hunger strikes as a form of protest.
On July 25, 1991, Amnesty International expressed its concern for Roberto Luque Escalona, who had commenced a hunger strike on July 16, 1990, while still free, interrupted three days later when he was arrested at his home. In July 1990, Luque Escalona had gone on a hunger strike lasting 35 days.
In 1997 Guillermo Fariñas carried out his first long-term hunger strike, demanding some kind of sanction against the director of the hospital where he worked, for her corrupt conduct. The strike started in January and ended on May 1. Guillermo Fariñas has gone on a whole series of hunger strikes, but it was the one he carried out after the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in prison, in January 2010, that had the greatest impact.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo's martyrdom in prison, after 86 days on a hunger strike, shone a light on the horrors of Castroism, eliciting national and international censure.
As a tribute to Zapata, and for the freedom of sick political prisoners, Guillermo Fariñas began a hunger strike that lasted 135 days. In the end Raúl Castro's government acceded to his demands, and some 100 political prisoners were released.
But, far from refraining from its ruthless conduct, Castroism ramped up its persecution and torture of citizens, whether free or in prison. The result was that Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death marked the start of a decade in which the use of hunger strikes as a method to demand rights increased, with a legacy of suffering that is difficult to narrate.
On November 11, 2011, in a demonstration by the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the activist and member of said organization, Wilman Villar Mendoza, was arrested. After a summary trial, he was sentenced to four years in prison for the crimes of assaulting an authority and contempt. A few days later, he began a hunger strike that would last 50 days.
According to a UNPACU communiqué, Wilman was placed naked in a cell, contracting pneumonia. Just two days before he died he was transferred to the hospital, where he died at the age of 31, on January 19, 2012. He had two children.
On August 6, 2015, the Cubanet newspaper published the interview "They have persecuted my son so badly, that he prefers to die," in which the lawyer and journalist Ernesto García spoke with Meibol Sánchez, the mother of Emmanuel Abreu, who had been on a hunger strike for 84 days.
Emmanuel, apparently, survived prison, as the information on him is hazy after his mother's numerous complaints.
Ariel Ruiz Urquiola's hunger strike in 2018 received major attention, particularly for his vociferous condemnation of the Castro dictatorship.
A biologist by profession, Ariel began to take care of his sister, Omara Isabel Ruiz Urquiola, when she fell ill with cancer in 2003. In 2016 he went on a first hunger strike in front of the Havana Oncological Hospital, demanding the medicine needed to save his sister's life.
The Ruiz Urquiola family's mobilization of the populace incensed the Castro regime, and in May 2018 Ariel was imprisoned for the crime of contempt. The conditions of overcrowding there were so degrading that Ariel began a hunger strike on June 16, 2018. His determination caused the authorities to cave in, and after 16 days he was allowed to serve the rest of his sentence outside prison.
After serving his time, Ariel traveled to Switzerland, where he was diagnosed, to his surprise, with HIV. Convinced that he had been infected by the Cuban regime during his hunger strike at the hospital, he filed complaints against the Castro regime with different international organizations. Again on a hunger strike, in June 2020 in Ariel installed himself in Geneva in front of the headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Four days later the international organization agreed to receive him at a plenary session of the Human Rights Council, and on Friday, July 3, he shared his account of the Communist horror in Cuba.
In October 2018 Tomás Núñez Magdariada, then a member of UNPACU, was released after 62 days on a hunger strike. The dictatorship had accused him of issuing threats, and sentenced him to one year in prison. From the beginning of his incarceration, on August 14, Tomás went on a hunger strike. He spent several days in the hospital when he was transferred, on the 34th day of his strike, to a punishment cell, and subjected to various acts of physical abuse.
On Monday, July 8, 2017, prisoner Hugo Riverón Olivera died at the Lenin Hospital in the city of Holguín, at the age of 59. According to the article in the Cubanet newspaper "Cuba: Prisoner Dies on Hunger Strike", Riverón Olivera had started his strike on May 12, 2017, demanding a review of his case. He had been sentenced to six years.
Yosvany Arostegui Armenteros, a member of the Camagüey Human Rights Unit, died on Friday, August 7, 2020 after 40 days on a hunger strike. He had served several months in the Kilo 7 prison in that city.
In January 2020, rapper Maykel Castillo, "Osorbo", a member of the San Isidro Movement, decried the death of prisoner Lázaro Abreu Godínez after 58 days on a hunger strike. He had been convicted of the crime of receiving stolen goods. In a video shot at the cemetery by Maykel, Abreu Godínez's sister condemned the severity of his sanction. Lázaro Abreu had a two-year-old son when he passed away.
On December 4, 2020, Roilán Álvarez Rensoler, a political activist and member of the UNPACU, was released after 29 days of a hunger strike that began on November 5. Charges of contempt were trumped up against Álvarez Rensoler, and his conviction was a disgrace for the Castroist judicial system. The activist went on a hunger strike at the same time he entered prison, after his trial, on November 5, 2020.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara's hunger strike took the history of this method of protest into a new stage. After 60 years of horror, Luis Manuel has fought like few others against Castroism, achieving in four years what it is difficult for many to achieve in a lifetime.
This horror sought to silence him, and Luis Manuel spoke through dozens of activists. The horror limited his space, so artists and intellectuals have given him their own. The horror threatened to distance him from the natural audience of his work, the San Isidro neighborhood, and from there came the voice that characterized the horror at last: singao.
This horror now aims to exhibit its specialty: sucking the life out of people. What it has done to an entire nation, it wants to do to Luis Manuel. But there the artist is, a beacon —just like Pedro Luis Boitel, Orlando Zapata, Guillermo Fariñas, Ariel Ruiz and many others— demonstrating that human beings do not even need sustenance to shine.