Cuban government backtracks on deal with protesters

© Reuters/ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI People protest in solidarity with dissident artists in Havana

HAVANA (Reuters) – Communist-run Cuba over the weekend launched an all-out rhetorical assault through state-run media on a rare protest that took place Friday for freedom of expression, branding it part of an ongoing effort by the United States to create an uprising.

The Friday stakeout around the culture ministry of around 300 creatives was sparked by authorities’ crackdown on the San Isidro Movement of dissident artists and activists that formed two years ago to protest curbs on freedom of expression.

The protest ended before dawn on Saturday only after officials met with 30 of the demonstrators and agreed to continue talking and to urgently review the case of a detained member of the San Isidro crew and a rapper sentenced this month to eight months in jail on charges of contempt. It also agreed to ensure independent artists in the future were not harassed.

But just hours later the government called in the top U.S. diplomat on the island, charge de affairs Timothy Zúñiga-Brown, for a scolding over “grave interference in Cuba’s internal affairs” as state television ran a 90-minute special attacking the rapper and other dissident artists and broadcasting visuals of their interactions with U.S. diplomats and Miami exiles.

“Sovereign Cuba accepts no interference … The revolutionary ones will fight back,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in one of a series of Twitter posts accusing the San Isidro movement of being a “reality show” on social media created by “U.S. imperialists.”

Diaz-Canel said much the same at a pro-government rally Sunday of a few thousand young people.

“In less than 24 hours the Culture Ministry has broken three of the five accords,” performance artists Tania Bruguera said at a Sunday news conference held by some of those who participated in the talks with the government.

Most present at the press conference denounced continued harassment of dissent and the branding of their efforts as a CIA plot, though they also expressed hope the dialogue would continue as promised.

Friday’s protest came after authorities besieged the movement’s headquarters in Old Havana’s San Isidro district on Thursday, breaking up a hunger strike there that had started to gain international attention.

Security forces forcibly removed and briefly detained the five members on hunger strike and nine other people in the house, citing violations of coronavirus protocols.

“We support the Cuban people in their struggle for liberty,” Jake Sullivan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s national security adviser wrote on Twitter.

“The Cuban people must be allowed to exercise the universal right to freedom of expression,” he said.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Wallis)