Rappers, poets and the revolving doors of secret prisons: Inside Cuba’s new revolution

The knock on the door came as Dina Stars was sitting in her Havana home giving a live television interview broadcast in Spain.

The 25-year-old influencer – a new phenomenon in closed-off Cuba – was explaining how asphyxiating the regime can be in the wake of the first major street protests in a generation when police began gathering outside her home.

The blonde millennial, wearing red lipstick and a nose ring, disappeared from the view of her webcam for 90 seconds. She returned, her face white and out of breath, with the word: “I have to go. They are taking me.”

Leaning closer, she added: “I hold the government responsible for anything that may happen to me. They are forcing me to go with them.”

With that she was gone, marched into a police car to be carried to a network of prisons which have been rapidly filling up with anyone who dared join the unprecedented protests – whether in the streets of Havana or in Cuba’s fledgling online space.

Dina Stars, just before she was arrested live on television

Credit: Twitter

The Cuban regime is in overdrive to stamp out the rare demonstrations, ostensibly linked to a severe economic downturn, a rise in Covid cases and major food and medicine shortages. Whether they can prevent a full-scale popular revolution is another question.

The protests were driven by an emerging class of dissident artists, poets, rappers and musicians who have been able to share their demands for freedom with the advent and spread of mobile internet over the last two years. 

The movement, led from Havana but reaching to Miami and back, led to rare chants of “queremos libertad” (we want freedom) and “no tenemos miedo” (we are not afraid) ringing out across the island of 11 million, shocking the government – and the rest of the world.

Dozens of clips shared online before the regime shut the internet down show police responding by kicking, beating and striking people with truncheons. Others have been shot.

“The streets have been militarised. Police and soldiers are going into houses with force and dragging people away,” one young activist, who did not want to be named, told The Telegraph.

For many Dina Stars is an embodiment of the modern Cuban protest movement.

There are not many “influencers” in Cuba given that the internet is regularly shut off and social media sites are blocked, despite the regime allowing the internet on phones since late 2018.

But Miss Stars persisted, building a modest following of dedicated disciples, which she calls “Dinamites” (dynamites).

While cooking demonstrations and playful drinking games are no threat to the regime, her posts have recently turned political and her audience has grown significantly.

Advocating for protests and posting footage online was a step too far.

On Wednesday Miss Stars was released from jail pending an investigation.

When she got home, she was ordered to leave her rented accommodation by a furious landlord.

“I haven’t slept, but I’m not tired,” she says, nose ring still in, red lipstick reapplied.

“I don’t know if it’s sadness or hate. I don’t know how I feel with respect to what’s happening.

“It’s too much. This is not a good morning. Cuba is still hurting.”

But she is determined to make a change.

“When there is a common cause, all of us will be united.

“If we continue like this, no-one will be able to stop us.”

One video showed a man apparently being shot in the back

Credit: Instagram

For many Cubans, this moment has been a long time in the making. They have lived under single-party communist rule for more than six decades and suffered under a US trade embargo.

The average wage is around $30 a month.

Tighter sanctions imposed by Donald Trump, which are still in place today, mean that people in the US can only send a maximum of $4,000 a year to a relative in Cuba.

This was before the pandemic caused the $3 billion tourism industry to all but evaporate.

The economy contracted by 11 per cent last year and the country currently has a higher coronavirus case rate than the UK.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, head of the San Isidro Movement, told the Telegraph in April that with Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, stepping down as head of the all-powerful Communist Party, there would be “a radical change” in Cuba.

His group is a collective of artists, journalists, singers and academics, formed in two years ago, when the internet was rolled out across Cuba.

At first they just advocated to be allowed to perform or publish without the need for prior state approval. Now they are demanding the end of communist rule and a transition to democracy.

Authorities say his group has been poisoned by critics of Cuba based in the US.

Weaponising social media, the underground movement has become emboldened, increasingly venturing into the open and gaining a legion of young, engaged followers.

Their work is shared on Instagram, their slogans are posted on Twitter and their arrests are live streamed on Facebook.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, leader of the San Isidro Movement is currently in jail 

Credit: Yander Zamora/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A song, “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) – an antidote to Che Guevara’s famous “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death) was composed by Cuban rappers and has been viewed more than six million times on Youtube, becoming an anthem for the repressed.

The phrases compete as hashtags on Twitter – the country divided between staunch communist defenders and a much smaller, but very vocal group, desperate for change.

Mr Alcántara is now in jail. He was picked up almost immediately by security forces who are invariably stationed outside his home.

“I know they could kill me. Franco killed his opponents. I know they could do the same,” he told the Telegraph.

“But I would happily die for this cause. Cuba is waking up to the injustices. Enough is enough.”

Miami-based Gente de Zona's protest rap song 'Patria y Vida' has been chanted on the streets of Havana

Yunior Garcia Aguilera, a theatre director and free speech activist, was also detained for demanding a say on state television in a demonstration outside the regime Film, Radio and Television institute.

“We were beaten, forcibly dragged and thrown onto a cargo truck like garbage bags,” he said.

The Telegraph has seen pictures verifying his claims.

From there, he says he was taken to the Vivac prison, where Fidel Castro was held in 1953 for attempting to launch a revolution.

“We saw dozens of young people arrive and gradually learned about the protests in various areas of the country,” he said.

Henry Constantín, Iris Mariño and Neife Rigau – journalists at Hora de Cuba – were dragged off the streets by armed men and are still in custody.

Iris Mariño being taken away by plain clothes officers

Credit: Twitter

Yenney Caballero, an animal rights activist, was detained while walking her dogs and her whereabouts is unknown.

Conservative estimates put the number of people arrested at around 140, but the Telegraph understands that the number could easily be double that, and continues to rise.

News has only trickled through because the internet has been turned off for days and social media sites have been blocked as the regime desperately tries to control the flow of information.

The regime, which brought 90-year-old Raul Castro out of retirement to attend an emergency meeting about the crisis, has blamed the United States for sparking the unrest.

Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Saturday denounced what he called a "lie" over unrest on the Caribbean island, speaking during a rally alongside Raul Castro and before thousands of supporters in Havana.

"What the world is seeing of Cuba is a lie," Diaz-Canel said, adding that the dissemination of "false images" on social networks where they "encourage and glorify the outrage and destruction of property".

Granma, the official newspaper of the state, said “a group at the service of foreign and annexationist interests, paid and directed by the United States,” were “looking to provoke a social explosion.”

While no evidence has been provided to show the protesters were paid, a social explosion has certainly occurred.

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