Francis Sánchez and Ileana Álvarez
Status: In exile
Francis Sánchez and Ileana Álvarez are writers, poets, and essayists living in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba. Sánchez, a prolific author of numerous poetry and short story collections, is the founder of the cultural magazine Árbol Invertido (Inverted Tree), an independent publication providing a platform for free expression in Cuba and encouraging an independent civil society. Ileana Álvarez is the founder of the feminist magazine Alas Tensas (Tense Wings), a magazine that gives Cuban women a space to speak freely and highlights issues of gender violence. Due to the controversial subjects both writers explore in their work and the criticisms of the Cuban government found in their online publications, the couple has faced numerous threats and intimidation by government officials. In the past year, they, their family, and their collaborators have faced increased harassment from government officials, which coincides with a sharp rise in the persecution of artists and writers throughout Cuba.
Since his debut in 1996 with Revelaciones atado al mástil, Sánchez has written more than 20 books published in editorials from Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and the United States, and has won several international awards. He regularly contributes to alternative publications such as 14ymedio, led by well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez, Convivencia, and La Hora de Cuba. Deeply aware of the isolation and underrepresentation many writers outside of Havana face, Sánchez founded Árbol Invertido in 2005. He describes the magazine as a “revista de tierra adentro” (“an inland magazine”) that not only exists outside of the capital, but also reflects the needs and voices of the creative communities outside of Havana. In 2010, he began publishing more critical opinion pieces on the blog, Hombre de las Nubes (Man of the Clouds), but was quickly forced to stop after a few months due to the number of threats he received. Despite these threats, he continues to publish opinion pieces and denounce efforts to silence him on his personal blog.
Fearing the consequences of his more political opinion pieces, Sánchez turned to visual poetry as an alternative way of expressing his ideas and emotions. “To start writing did not seem honest; I wanted to squeeze my life and from it get something as concentrated and real as possible, like a scream. My first visual poem emerged like that, so I could say that I was afraid, and not only say it, but to also make it felt and seen. A liberating act, that is what visual poetry represents for me,” explains Sánchez. His last visual poetry exhibition, Desechos Humanos (Human Waste), was supported by the Norwegian Embassy and initially approved by the Cultural Office of Ciego de Ávila. When the Cultural Office revoked its permission, the Museo de la Disidencia—a public art project that celebrates dissent in Cuba and won the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award—hosted his exhibition in an unofficial space. The banned exhibition featured more than 30 works in which Sánchez played with the meaning of words and used visual poetry as a way to resist iconography that is synonymous with propaganda and dogmatism.
Sánchez is also one of the collaborating editors for his wife Ileana Álvarez’s magazine, Alas Tensas that she founded in 2016. Together they recently published the book of essays Sagradas compañías (Sacred Company) which won the National Prize for Essays in Cuba this year. Álvarez has been an editor of numerous publications and published several essay compilations, but primarily sees herself as a poet. When asked about the many roles she juggles, she says that all her roles as a woman, a mother, and an activist are one act of resistance: “My poetry, my literature, my life all is made up of resistance. I resist as a woman, as a writer, and as a mother, in the small margin that I am left with for the sole fact of being born and to live in a small provincial town, under an autocratic and patriarchal system that gives us little room for individuality and freedom of thought.” The magazine targets a wide audience and seeks to spread awareness about pressing gender equality problems and to give visibility to women’s work in the arts and other fields.
The online publication explores topics varying from democracy to development, but all seen from a feminist perspective. It includes texts, both fiction and nonfiction, photographs, and multimedia pieces. An entire section of the magazine is dedicated to gender violence and to demanding that the government share (or collect) official statistics on femicide in the country. Despite having traveled numerous times to journalism and feminist conferences, Álvarez was surprised when she was prevented from going to a journalism workshop organized by Centro Latinoamericano de Periodismo (CELAP) in Panama. In another incident, officers from the Contrainteligencia Militar (CIM) harshly questioned her for five hours and qualified the independent journalism work in Alas Tensas and Árbol Invertido as “counterrevolutionary.” On top of being threatened with prison time, she was told, “We have made much harder ones than you crack in three days. We can finish you.”
Like many independent writers and artists in Cuba, Sánchez and Álvarez have faced various forms of harassment. However, it was not until March of this year that both grew concerned. Before Álvarez’s travel ban and interrogation, Sánchez was stopped at an airport returning to Cuba, his laptop searched and questioned because of a PowerPoint presentation that discussed issues of discrimination in the Cuban electoral system. After being fined for trying to “attack against the security of the State,” he posted about the interrogation on his blog. A few days later, it quickly became apparent that the travel ban was not limited to them. Yaudel Estenoz, a designer for both Alas Tensas and Árbol Invertido, was summoned to the immigration offices in Ciego de Ávila, accused of collaborating with counterrevolutionary publications, and told he was under a travel ban. Estenoz had recently received a scholarship to attend a Masters program in the United States, which he lost due to his inability to travel. Álvarez denounced the interrogations and travel bans in a later post in Alas Tensas.
The targeting of both Sánchez and Álvarez coincides with a period of increased hostility against artists and independent cultural institutions in Cuba. Artists are currently experiencing an increase in travel restrictions, interrogations, and searches through their homes and galleries, and having their work and files confiscated. Laritza Diversent, executive director of Cubalex, an NGO that gives pro bono legal support to Cubans, explained that “This form of systematic, constant harassment seeks to disorient and affect psychologically not only writers, artists, and activists, but also their family, friends, and colleagues. It seeks to isolate them and is a total intrusion in their private life.” It’s not just individual artists facing censorship. Cultural spaces and events like the recent #00Bienal de la Habana have also been targeted.
This strategy does not affect only artists—everyone around them can be subject to an interrogation or a threatening visit, which impacts support networks and leaves creators isolated. Travel bans not only infringe on their right to movement and expression, but also sever them from a wider community of artists and writers that support their work. This is particularly toxic for artists outside of Havana, who already lack the visibility of their counterparts in the capital and must constantly juggle efforts to protect themselves and find venues to show their work.
Most recently, Sánchez and Álvarez were told they would not able to travel to Barcelona to participate in the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congress they had been invited to. Although they were able to travel one day later, they missed the panel they were schedule to join. The incident highlights the extreme difficulty in creating strategies to respond to the seemingly arbitrary nature of travel restrictions.
Despite their difficult situation, both writers have not stopped working and hope to find a safe way to reflect accurately on their current experiences in Cuba. When asked about the importance of being published and having visibility, Sánchez replied “In Cuba I have never been allowed to exhibit in institutions, I have only done so in private or alternatives spaces. To express myself, to be seen or heard, even through the tiniest of fissures, instills in me the hope to be able to exist by my own will.”
By Laura Kauer García, June 2018. Laura is the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) Coordinator.
Join ARC in demanding that the harassment against Francis Sánchez and Ileana Álvarez stop and that the artists be allowed to create and share their work freely. You can click to tweet below or create your own tweet using the hashtags #LibertadDeExpresion and #FreeArtInCuba.