Cuba

El Crítico: Music as a subversive instrument in Cuba

Cuban rapper Ángel Yunier Remón Arzuaga, aka 'El Critico', right, during an interview. The man to the left is also a rapper.
Cuban rapper Ángel Yunier Remón Arzuaga, aka 'El Critico', right, during an interview. The man to the left is also a rapper. El Nuevo Herald

During his years behind bars, Angel Yunier Remón Arzuaga staged a 27-day hunger strike and refused to wear the prison uniform. Now, as the rapper known as “El Critico” returns to his music, he plans to do so with a strong message against the Castro regime.

After an almost 14-hour trip from his native Bayamo — the city in eastern Cuba that was the cradle of the national anthem and independence from Spain —“El Crítico” and dissident Alexander Otero recently celebrated their freedom in a bar in Old Havana. They were on a list of 53 political prisoners the the United States requested released as part of an effort to normalize relations between the two countries.

Just two weeks after being released for launching a war of words against the Raúl Castro government, they are ready for renewed combat.

Remón is the only musician on the list of freed political prisoners. His crime was to write “Down with the dictatorship” on the door of his house.

A member of the hip-hop group “Los Hijos que Nadie Quiso” (The Children No One Wanted), Remón charged against the regime’s official propaganda as if wielding a machete — forcefully and unapologetically:

“I did not invent the acts of repudiation/ I did not sink the tugboat 13 de marzo/ I did not assassinate Boitel/ I’m not responsible for the Mariel...”

His “freedom” has conditions. Anything the 31-year-old performer may do that the government sees as outside the revolutionary standards will have consequences. But he’s planning to bring his music of dissatisfaction to Havana.

“I believe that this dialogue will be very positive and satisfactory for the Cuban people,” says Remón about the diplomatic talks between Havana and Washington, in his first interview with a Miami newspaper.

“And it will be beneficial for our people, because we’ll have a chance to exchange ideas with people who live in a democracy.”

For his part, Otero, 38, who displays a tattoo on his right arm saying “No to the Castros,” says that the mistreatment he suffered during more than 18 months in prison will not deter him from continuing to demand improvements for the island.

“They beat me very hard several times in prison, to the point that they almost gave me a cerebral ischemia,” Otero says. “They beat us for our critical stance to a system that doesn’t tolerate different voices. What we now hope is that, with these negotiations with the United States, we Cubans may express ourselves without being beaten for thinking differently.”

THEIR CRIMES

Remón and Otero were arrested March 26, 2013, on charges of contempt of authority and resisting arrest. That morning, Remón says, he had been the victim of an act of repudiation. The front of his house, in Bayamos’ Ciro Redondo neighborhood, was daubed with tar and asphalt.

The masked men who soiled his house were not identified, and Remón’s complaints to the leaders of the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) went for naught. Shortly thereafter, he wrote on his door, “Down with the dictatorship.”

“People gathered to see what had happened to me and all of a sudden an agent pounced on me,” says Remón, who is a coordinator in Bayamo for the opposition group Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).

“But then the agent claimed that I attacked him first, so they took me to jail.”

Hearing about the incident, Otero went to defend Remón. He even shouted complaints about the authorities’ abuses against the dissidents.

“We demand that the Cuban government give way to the new generations,” Otero says that he shouted on the street that day. “Because a Cuban who steals from the government is innocent; because a man who steals from a thief is forgiven for his sin; because this is a corrupt government.”

Shortly thereafter, both were sent to the Las Mangas Prison in Bayamo. Between October and November 2013, El Crítico staged a hunger strike in support of his demand for an oral trial.

After the hunger strike, which was replicated on Miami’s Calle Ocho, the Cuban courts in October 2014 sentenced Otero to five years’ imprisonment and El Crítico to eight.

The beatings by guards made prison a torment, they said. On occasion, Remón was forbidden to receive visits from relatives. He was hard put to control his anger.

“Alex [Otero] and I did not obey the disciplinary rules to which common prisoners were subjected, such as wearing gray uniforms,” Remón says. “We dressed in white, but several times we were punished and made to wear only our underwear.”

“I don’t repress those who think differently/ I didn’t imprison 75 innocents...”

Thanks to UNPACU’s active media strategy, El Crítico’s denunciations from prison reached the Internet and YouTube. His case had enough international repercussion that the United States advocated for him to the Castro government.

CROSSING BORDERS

El Crítico is not an isolated case in a growing trend of the politicization of the arts and culture in Cuba.

In more than two decades, the hip-hop movement in Cuba has crossed the borders of the speech tolerated by the authorities and has broached controversial topics ranging from racism and police harassment to the dangerous questioning of Fidel and Raúl Castro’s authority.

Increasingly, musicians, writers, audiovisual producers and plastic artists seek to move the island’s political “floor,” despite the serious consequences.

Artist Tania Bruguera, who spends most of her time outside Cuba, has been barred from leaving the country since December for trying to stage a street performance with an open microphone at Revolution Square.

Another protest rapper, Maikel Oksobo (El Dkano) was recently sent to prison on charges of “pre-crime dangerousness.” They join graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado and writer Angel Santiesteban, autor of the book of prison tales, The Children No One Wanted, which inspired Remón to name his rap duet, created with Yudier Blanco Pacheco.

“Look how many crimes you have shelved/ this is my crime: to talk about what you keep silent.”

Unlike other artistic expressions, which need training and resources, hip-hop was born in Cuba from the concerns of young people in troubled social environments and economic hardship, such as Remón, whose house burned down.

When he was barely 18, he was imprisoned for stealing clothing from a store and sentenced to six years. There, he says, he honed his critical spirit, which is now reflected in the lyrics of many of his songs.

“My record was dirtied by those who harass us; my prison record comes from the prison of my education. Bayamenses, we’ll see hope or steal it,” sings El Crítico in The Reality of Bayamo.

Remón, who has been writing protest songs since 2012, says that he plans to sing in Havana and, later, on the international circuit.

“When I came out of prison, I was very happy to reunite with my family,” says Remón, “but at this stage of negotiation between Cuba and the United States, I plan to remain an activist in the struggle for democracy and social justice in our country.”

This articles carries no byline and the photographs have no credit line because the Cuban government has refused to grant visas to El Nuevo Herald reporters. Some of the people mentioned in the stories are identified only by their first name to prevent reprisals from the authorities.

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