05 Sep A Bold Attempt to Redefine ‘Dissidence’ in Cuba
Through a digital “museum of dissidence,” a Havana couple sets out to remind Cubans
that Fidel and Raúl Castro were once dissidents.
By ERNESTO LONDOÑO SEPT. 3, 2016
Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelis Nuñez Leyva created the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba. Credit Hannah Berkeley Cohen for The New York Times
“Dissident” is a loaded word in Cuba, a label used to discredit and punish. Those who have embraced the term can be shut out of public jobs and are often subjected to arbitrary detentions and beatings.
This year, with expectations reset by the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelis Nuñez Leyva, a couple in Havana, figured it was time to redefine what it means to be a dissident. They created the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba, a website that chronicles the long line of people who have stood in opposition to the government throughout history.
Among the dissidents they feature are President Raúl Castro and his brother, Fidel, who took power through an armed revolt, along with prominent leaders of modern opposition groups, who have been suppressed by the Cuban government. The project carries an implicit message: The current ruling class, which seems so rigidly entrenched, will most likely be replaced one day.
Mr. Otero, who is a sculptor, has pushed the boundaries of free speech before through performance art. But Ms. Nuñez’s involvement with the website was particularly gutsy, since she worked as a staff writer at a magazine published by the Ministry of Culture when the site was created in April.
“We set out to dismantle the pejorative meaning the word ‘dissident’ has had in Cuba,” Ms. Nuñez said in an interview. “It was designed to be a space to generate dialogue.”
In late May, though, it became clear she was in trouble. After meeting with the vice minister of culture, Ms. Nuñez’s boss told her that it would be in her best interest to resign quietly because of her involvement with the project. She refused and was told to take two weeks of vacation. Before her leave was up, she was suspended without pay for a month, pending the results of an investigation into whether she visited websites at the office that were not relevant to her work.
On July 1, she was fired. Several Cuban state employees who have run afoul of the government have chosen to walk away quietly. Not Ms. Nuñez, who chose to challenge the decision.
“Even if I don’t prevail, I think it’s worthwhile to fight,” she said. “There’s a pretense here that freedom of expression is respected. What I’m doing could help build pressure to force them to follow the law.”
Luisa Campuzano, the editor of Revolución y Cultura, the magazine that employed Ms. Nuñez, declined to discuss her dismissal. “It’s something that’s not worth talking about,” Ms. Campuzano said in a brief phone conversation.
Last month, a labor board rejected Ms. Nuñez’s challenge to the dismissal. She is now appealing her case to a municipal court, hoping it will be assigned to a maverick judge. “The museum has a noble intent,” she said. “If we’re acting nobly, we can’t be afraid.”