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Hola Otaola! Can A Racist Demagogue Be A Serious Defender Of Cuban Rights?

Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Cuban exile YouTube personality Alex Otaola leading a demonstration in Little Havana on Saturday against the Cuban regime's crackdown on the island's artists.

COMMENTARY Saturday's brief arrest of Cuban exile influencer Alex Otaola in Miami is a reminder of how much he sounds like communist leaders in Havana.

I know this is a stretch. But I wonder if rock-star Cuban-exile influencer Alex Otaola, whose YouTube rant show has often been accused of racism, experienced any moments of self-reflection when he was briefly arrested last Saturday in Little Havana.

I wonder if at any point Otaola asked himself: would this be turning out differently if I were a Black man in Miami instead of a White Cuban man in Miami?

He certainly should have – not just for the sake of people who face systemic racism in the U.S., but also folks confronting systemic repression in Cuba.

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Otaola says he was mistakenly – unjustly – handcuffed and led away when the demonstration he was leading against Cuba’s communist regime got rowdy. He was released later in the day – after Cuban community heavyweights including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Congresswoman-elect Maria Elvira Salazar intervened on his behalf.

In other words, Otaola was gifted the sort of pull Black people in America can rarely count on in similar jams. It’s the sort of clout that might have saved George Floyd, whose alleged murder by Minneapolis cops this year led to months of nationwide protests.

Otaola preaches to his legions of fans that those protests are not about racial justice but are instead a showcase for the “Marxist agenda” of the Black Lives Matter movement. They’re proof, he screams, “of the level of communist infiltration in our schools, universities, barrios and low-income families.” They’re “dressed up by the left as humane” but are “actually led by delinquents, savages and unscrupulous anti-Americans” using Floyd’s killing (which he's admittedly criticized) to “launch an all-out attack on U.S. democracy.”

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Otaola denies charges of racism, yet he gets a kick out of performing in blackface – as he’s done on his YouTube show “Hola! Ota-Ola” to satirize Black Cuban singers like Chocolate MC.

But the other sad fact is that Otaola's rhetoric sounds a lot like that of the same Cuban regime honchos he was lambasting out in front of the Versailles Restaurant on Saturday.

His Little Havana demonstration was a show of support for a cohort of artists in Cuba known as the San Isidro Movement. Since last week the collective has sparked an unusually broad public protest against the regime’s heavy-handed stifling of free speech and expression.

How seriously can the world take Otaola in his defense of Cubans who are unjustly hounded by cops, when he demonizes Americans who are unjustly hounded by cops?

Rather than listen to those legitimate and longstanding complaints, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has cracked down – firing off ¡viva la revolución! tweets baselessly calling the San Isidro protests a counter-revolutionary “soft coup” orchestrated by the Trump Administration and Cuban exiles in Miami. “An imperialist spectacle meant to destroy Cuba’s identity,” he claimed, “and make us submit to the U.S and its strategy of domination.”


The bottom line is that Díaz-Canel’s Twitter account is full of the same kind of bogus bull about Cuba’s artists that Otaola’s been larding all over YouTube about Black Lives Matter. And, for that matter, about U.S. President-elect Joe Biden: Otaola, a fervent Trump supporter, did as much as any media demagogue this year to falsely smear Biden as a comunista in the minds of so many Cuban and other Latino voters.

Ismael Francisco
Cuban artists and other citizens protest in front of the Ministry of Culture last Friday.

Perhaps the really key irony here, however, is what sparked the San Isidro revolt: this month’s arrest of one of its members, rapper Denis Solís – and his eight-month prison sentence for contempt – for simply posting a video of Cuban police breaking into his home without a warrant.

So it turns out Cuban artists and dissidents on the island have something in common with Black Americans when it comes to police abuse. In fact, the San Isidro Movement led a demonstration in Havana this year in support of Black Lives Matter. The fact that Otaola can’t or won't see that undermines more than just his viral Internet brand. It diminishes his effectiveness, and that of his fawning followers in South Florida, as advocates for human rights in Cuba.

How seriously is the rest of the world – let alone a communist ideologue like Díaz-Canel – supposed to take Otaola and his YouTube throng in their defense of Cubans who are unjustly hounded by cops, when they demonize Americans who are unjustly hounded by cops?

I’d hope even a charlatan like Otaola might experience an epiphany like that during his own brief encounter with police. But I know, that’s a stretch.

Hola! Ota-Ola con Alexander Otaola (Programa 31 oct 2017)

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.