Cuban dissident hunger strike challenges government

HAVANA (Reuters) - The leader of a group of artists, writers and activists has announced a new hunger strike, just six months after one led to a rare protest in Havana, putting them on a potential collision course with the island's communist authorities.

A previous group hunger strike by the San Isidro movement in November was broken up by police, resulting in a rare demonstration of around 300 people in front of the Culture Ministry in Havana.

Since then, the group has been vilified by authorities as outside agitators working with the United States. The few dozen members have been temporarily detained repeatedly and often told they cannot leave their homes with communications cut.

Leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara was arrested and some of his art destroyed and seized a few weeks ago as the performance artist protested a Communist party congress by sitting in a garrote.

Otero Alcantara, who is into the seventh day without food or fluids, is demanding his art be returned, freedom of expression and an end to police harassment.

"We are calling a national vigil of all Cubans in the world for the life of MOAlcantara (Otero Alcantara)" the movement said on Twitter Friday evening, after an earlier call for Cubans to gather in local parks holding flowers fizzled.

The government has responded by questioning the authenticity of the hunger strike, surrounding Otero Alcantara's home with police and cutting internet to the neighborhood.

People can survive more than a month without food, but rarely more than 10 days without food or fluids.

Father Ramón Suarez Polcari of the Havana archdiocese, visited Otero Alcantara on Friday and said he had no intention of backing down.

The government also appears in no rush to budge.

Unlike other dissident groups in Cuba, the San Isidro collective is social media savvy and well connected to the Diaspora and exile organizations.

They have been appealing for support since the hunger strike began, gaining little traction to date in Cuba but some abroad, including from human rights organizations and the U.S. government.

"Dozens of Cuban artists, journalists and activists arrested, under surveillance, or confined in their homes to silence their support for MOAlcantara," the U.S. State Department said in a tweet on Friday.

"The United States stands with all who defend freedoms of expression and assembly in Cuba."

(Reporting by Marc Frank; additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Diane Craft)

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