Playwright Is in Exile as Cuba Uses an Old Playbook to Quash Dissent

MADRID — 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. García, 39, told reporters at a news conference in Madrid on Thursday, 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 on Monday when state security agents scuttled a nationwide protest. And days later, one of the movement’s best-known leaders, Mr. García, was sitting in Spain.

Men hanging Cuban flags over the windows of Mr. García’s home in Havana this past week, in an effort to stop him from communicating with supporters.Credit…Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

To many, Mr. 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 encouraged 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 cut-out paper that included another Cuban artist’s confession under interrogation by the authorities.

Cubans gathering at dawn outside a store in Alamar. They have endured months of food and medicine shortages. Credit…Eliana Aponte Tobar for The New York Times

After Mr. Lavastida returned to Havana in June, the 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 Mr. Lavastida, referring to Antony J. 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 Mr. Lavastida on to 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, Ms. Baró said. For example, rather than sentencing government critics outright to prison, the authorities have detained them for stretches at a time, in an effort to “destabilize everyone emotionally — you and your family,” she said.

“It’s a kind of psychological torture,” Ms. Baró said.

For Mr. García, it leaves a question: Why had the government touted reforms if it wouldn’t tolerate voices like his?

Mr. García talking to reporters outside the provincial prosecutor’s office in Havana last month.Credit…Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It’s like they tried perestroika without glasnost,” he said, invoking terms used in the Soviet Union during its reform era at the end of the Cold War. The first refers to official reforms, the second to the openness that was meant to follow.

Mr. 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 around 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, though 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 2021, 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.

Mr. 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 on Nov. 15, the day Cuba was set to allow foreign tourists to enter again.

A bread line in Havana this month. Hunger and blackouts ignited a wave of demonstrations this year.Credit…Eliana Aponte Tobar for The New York Times

Mr. García found himself in the cross hairs.

On Oct. 22, he said he returned home to find the pair of decapitated pigeons. Days later, hundreds of government supporters gathered at his doorstep, chanting against him.

“I didn’t see a single neighbor among them,” said Mr. García, who believes the crowd was transported there by the government.

By last week, state-run television began running segments saying Mr. García was aiming to violently overthrow the government. He took it as a warning that he would soon be arrested.

Though he had obtained a 90-day visa from the Spanish government, Mr. García still planned to join the Nov. 15 protests. But he was blocked from leaving his home as the government stopped demonstrators from gathering.

Shortly afterward, Mr. García said, two friends sneaked him out of his home to a safe house where he spent two days before arriving in Spain. The government had posted guards in front of his home, but Mr. García said he believed he was not stopped because officials wanted him out of the country.

The reactions to his departure have been mixed on the Facebook group he founded. The group’s leaders, apparently unaware at first that he had fled, posted messages suggesting he had been kidnapped. Some commenters said they felt betrayed that he had left.

In Spain, though, Mr. García has found welcome.

“I’m not made of bronze or marble, and I am not riding a white horse,” Mr. García told reporters after arriving in Madrid.Credit…Ben Roberts for The New York Times

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.

Mr. 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.

José Bautista contributed reporting from Madrid.

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