By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - More than 150 people staked out Cuba's culture ministry on Friday to show solidarity with dissident artists facing a state crackdown, in an unusually large display of public dissent on the Communist-run island.
The demonstrators demanded a dialogue over limits on freedom of expression and what they call state repression after the authorities cracked down on the San Isidro Movement of dissident artists and activists.
The Dutch and Czech governments and Amnesty International, as well as other rights groups, voiced concern on Friday about human rights in Cuba.
The movement has been protesting the imprisonment of a rapper on charges of contempt, casting a spotlight on the one-party state's treatment of human rights. Eight members and allies went on hunger strike 10 days ago.
Authorities broke up the strike on Thursday, evicting everyone from the movement's headquarters, citing a violation of COVID-19 health protocols. The dissidents said this was a pretext to end their protest.
Fourteen dissidents, including five still on hunger strike, were briefly detained. They said their phones had been seized and reset, deleting images of the move against them.
"The way they were already treating them left us constantly uneasy, also like our own freedom was being threatened," said Yunior Garcia, an actor and one of the organizers of the stakeout. "But what happened yesterday was the straw that broke the camel's back."
The San Isidro Movement, named after the rundown neighborhood in Old Havana where the group has its headquarters, was founded in 2018 to oppose a decree they said increased censorship on the cultural sector.
The artists, who often use irreverent performances to criticize the government, have faced frequent temporary arrests and other forms of pressure. The government calls dissidents, including the San Isidro crew, mercenaries directed by the United States to destabilize it.
Some Cubans reported that social media platforms in the country, where the state has a monopoly on telecommunications, were briefly shut down to prevent news of the raid from being shared online. Access to several news sites with a focus on Cuba, like the Miami Herald, has also been blocked in recent weeks.
"They entered by force, breaking the door," said independent journalist Iliana Hernandez in a video livestreamed on Facebook. "Many military people dressed as if they were doctors, wearing gowns."
The stakeout, starting with two dozen people in the morning, grew to more than 100 as the day went on, including internationally renowned Cuban artists like Tania Bruguera and filmmakers like Fernando Perez.
Late into the evening, the protesters said they were refusing to leave until they had met with a high-level official.
Opposition groups have struggled to gain traction in Cuba, where the government has a monopoly on mass media and usually quickly quashes public shows of dissent.
But growing access to the internet has enabled groups like the San Isidro Movement to reach a wider audience.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Tom Brown, Rosalba O'Brien and William Mallard)