Written by Staff Writer by Rosana de la Paz Correa, CNN Mexico City
When the Cuban government arrested Gustavo Arreaza, one of the island’s most prominent dissidents, in 2012, the 29-year-old academic was just three months away from finishing a fellowship at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Instead of going on, he decided to create the Gulp Cultural Center , in a burst of creativity that has been a feature of his own political rebellion since 1999.
“I didn’t like being kicked in the belly,” Arreaza said during a one-hour interview with CNN on Tuesday. “For someone who got kicked by the Cuban government, that felt like death.”
Arreaza built the Gulp, a tumblr and literary hub in lower Manhattan, at the age of 19. A photographer and visual artist, Arreaza studied film and art history in New York. He says his music career didn’t end on the streets of Havana, either.
“It is impossible to be a musician in Cuba without having a [Cuban] passport,” he said. “The status of the musician is not nice.”
For three years, Arreaza kept developing the center, applying and then finally winning a creative-award contest. The project has been well received in the U.S. Critics loved its street-fashion meets-literary ethos, its community building and its celebration of the best of Cuban culture.
A school motto: “Culture is our weapon.”
The Cuba behind the Trump administration’s new Cuba policy: Here’s what you need to know
Yet Arreaza refused to be deterred. He didn’t step away from the issue that had hung over him: Cuba’s systematic denial of human rights.
“This is a product of the government,” he said. “It’s how they abuse their power.”
The Gulp has experienced a steady boost in popularity since it opened its doors in 2014. Its literary world, a thriving hub for Cuban artists, is small but growing. The center hosts free events as well as book clubs and other literary events.
“In Cuba, you can be in touch with the world, and you can be in touch with other people,” Arreaza said. “One mustn’t apologize. Those who criticize this (Cuba) live with the thing.”
The center’s staff includes Elio Hernandez and Gilbert Garcia, Cuban award-winning writers who Arreaza described as his “influences.” A Cuban poet, Orlando Venegas, is a member of Arreaza’s artistic circle.
“When you ask the question ‘Are you Cuban or are you an exile?’ you will have to provide an answer to that question — there is no other,” Arreaza said.
His views, along with those of a number of his fellow dissidents, are splashed on a magazine cover on the center’s wall.
The government’s “passion” is money and art, and their “philosophy is that freedom is a right, and socialism is a freedom from freedom.”
Arreaza says his aims in the US are simple: “To create dialogue. To create dialogue between the people and the government. To create dialogue between the oppressor and the oppressed.”
Yet his friends at home — and those who see his work in the U.S. — disagree with his uncompromising independence.
Míchelle Maria Oudéa, Cuba’s first female cabinet minister, is the president of the Foundation of Cuban Writers and Artists (FLAVIO) and a member of its writers committee.
When news of Arreaza’s imprisonment broke in 2012, FLAVIO’s Cuban journalists were charged with “sedition.” The FLAVIO’s website now carries a passage from Miguel Díaz Canel, Cuba’s vice president and minister of higher education: “This group of people who call themselves the dissident is a group of aberrant barbarians.”
Arreaza’s story might seem to embody the best and worst of Cuba and its literary community. But what he says is certain is that “the collective is the most important element for life.”
Even in exile, he says the language and ideas of the community never leave Cuba.
“There is nowhere else in the world, except Cuba, where the concept of the collective and the strength of the collective are more important than in the United States,” he said.
“I love Cuba and I will fight for Cuba, day and night.”