How “Patria y Vida” became the anthem of Cuban anti-government protests

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Written by Scottie Andrew, CNN

“Patria o muerte” – “homeland or death.” It’s a phrase often engraved on Cuban pesos, a phrase frequently used by longtime former leader Fidel Castro on the eve of the country’s communist revolution.

Now the familiar saying has been reused for the protest hymn “Patria y Vida,” or “homeland and life”, a subversive song by some of Cuba’s most popular musicians who denounce social repression and a serious economic crisis in their country of origin.

“Now, let’s not shout ‘homeland and death’ but rather ‘homeland and life’,” sing artists Yotuel, Descemer Bueno and reggaeton duo Gente de Zona, among others. “Let no more blood flow for wanting to think differently. Who told you that Cuba is yours if Cuba belongs to all my people? ”

Cuban anti-government protesters adopted the song as a mantra. Music can be a powerful tool of protest, and “Patria y Vida” is perhaps the closest song to modern Cuban history to inspire such a massive response. CNN spoke with researchers specializing in Cuban history and Latin American protest music about what makes the song so powerful and why the protests it recorded are unlike anything the country has seen for decades.

The ingredients of a great protest song

There are a few common ingredients that powerful protest anthems share, said Christina Azahar, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies Latin American music.

Meaningful protest music denounces unjust acts. It calls for direct political action and provides an alternative narrative of history from the perspective of marginalized groups, she said. It helps if the song uses metaphor and allegory to spread its message, lest it get censored or buried, and touch people in some way. A great protest song creates a sense of community among its listeners.

“Patria y Vida” more than does the job perfectly: it criticizes the Cuban government’s attempts to censor artists and critics who oppose its policies, as well as the economic crisis which leaves much of the country without a supply regular in food, fund and medicine. This inspired protesters from all corners of Cuban society to rise up against the government, demonstrate in the streets and risk arrest for voicing their opposition. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a dance reggae track, Azahar said.

“Music and art allow social movements to imagine the world [demonstrators] want to live, either by validating or developing a sense of shared identity or history, or by considering future forms of coexistence, “Azahar said in an email to CNN.” Among groups that have undergone dehumanization constant and who have been denied their basic civil rights, finding collective joy and dignity through music is a powerful form of protest. ”

Artist Yotuel attends an SOSCuba rally in support of the Cuban Freedom protest in Little Havana on July 14 in Miami. Credit: Manny Hernandez / Getty Images

It’s a new twist on a familiar Cuban phrase

The expression “patria o muerte” evokes strong memories among Cubans who grew up with it. It has its origins in the Communist revolution in Cuba in 1959, when the late Castro called on Cubans to “sacrifice their livelihoods and even their lives” in the service of the revolution, Azahar said. The expression is still in common use today.

“‘Patria y Vida’ criticizes and reworks this national slogan by asking Cubans to imagine a form of autonomy based not on austerity and homogeneity, but rather on the maintenance of the life of all, not only of the political elite, ”she said.

The phrase defines a period in Cuban history that many locals remember as being marked by suffering and economic hardship, which anti-government protesters continue to demonstrate today, said University professor Lillian Guerra. from Florida studying Cuban history.

By alluding to “patria o muerte” in their song, Guerra said, the artists behind “Patria y Vida” “have given shape and passion to what Cubans want: the sovereignty of their country and their ability to prosper, to to grow up, to live “.

He came out at the right time

“Patria y Vida” was released in February, just months before frustrations over the country’s food and medicine shortage, problems exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions against Cuba hit their ground. apogee.
The feeling of “Patria y Vida” – that artists deeply love their country but cannot stand to see their Cuban compatriots struggling to eat, work and survive – struck Cubans. And even though Yotuel Romero, one of the lead artists on the track, said in February interview with Billboard As the song was quickly criticized by the government, it received over 2 million views in the month of its video release. It has now been viewed over 7 million times on YouTube.

“The Cubans have a clear political vision of what is wrong and have never had a way to do anything about it. They still don’t have it. That’s why they took to the streets. “Guerra said. “They lost the fear that controlled them, that told each of them that they couldn’t challenge the system because they would do it alone and pay the price. Now they see that they are not alone. and they feel the power of this solidarity, this pride in being the true nation. “

“Patria y Vida” put these grievances and demands to song.

The performers belong to an artist-activist movement

Romero, Bueno and Gente de Zona members Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom are members of the San Isidro Movement, an artists’ collective created in 2018 to protest the regime’s escalating cultural censorship, Azahar said.

Their involvement in the San Isidro movement “almost certainly helped to give authenticity to the message of ‘Patria y Vida’,” said Azahar.

The movement protested against Decree 349, a law that prohibits artists from performing in public or private spaces without the approval of the Cuban government’s Ministry of Culture, according to Amnesty International, an organization that fights against human rights violations.

“These intellectual musicians expressed the feelings of a majority of Cubans,” Guerra said.

Amnesty International, along with the artists who make up the San Isidro Movement, say the decree could limit the artistic freedom of Cuban artists and the ability of Cuban residents to participate in the exchange of ideas.

In “Patria y Vida,” the artists criticize the Cuban government’s attempts to limit artistic expression, Azahar said.

“We are the dignity of an entire oppressed people,” sings Bueno, “held at gunpoint and by words that still mean nothing”.

It should also be noted, Azahar said, that the San Isidro movement and the popularity of the artists involved helped the song soar on social media, which in turn helped amplify the voices of protesters across the country and the world.

The performers are black Cubans

It is also significant that the song taken up by the anti-government protesters is performed by a group that includes Afro-Cuban men.

For years, Cuba saw itself as “an ally of black rights around the world,” Azahar noted, from sending troops to help several African nations in conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s to granting of asylum to black radicals in the United States during the Civil Rights Era. But black Cubans continue to face racism and harassment in their country, including from their government, Azahar said.

While the artists behind “Patria y Vida” sing about experiences they hope most Cubans can relate to, they knew from an early age how scarcity of resources can devastate communities. The artists grew up in working-class areas of the country, the Miami Herald reported in February.

Bueno told the Miami Herald in February that he “always believed that the impetus [for changes in Cuba] was going to come from the most resentment among the people. We have always known that in poor neighborhoods, we live with the minimum. “

“Patria y Vida” was adopted by anti-government protesters from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds in Cuba. Its popularity reveals a “sense of solidarity among listeners who identify with the song’s critique of the government’s hypocrisy regarding racial and socio-economic equality,” Azahar said.

Protests in Cuba are biggest in decades

Guerra said the most recent protests are “unprecedented and historic” events because of their scale, sustained momentum and the attention they have attracted internationally. Some protesters denounce recent economic hardship, but others use the protests to call for greater freedom.

“Cubans are tired of not being able to change direction, of not being able to say that nothing in the state is working, of not being able to control any aspect of their life,” she said.

Bueno echoed this statement in his interview with the Miami Herald, calling the myriad of crises facing the country in 2021 “the moment many people like me have always waited for” – the moment they took to the streets. to make their voices heard.

Guerra said she believed “the movement would gain in numbers and credibility, even if it is stifled by arrests and crackdown.” It remains to be seen whether “Patria y Vida” will continue to make the soundtrack for future protests, but it speaks both to decades of opposition to a government that protesters see as oppressive and specific events of 2021 that prompted the Cubans to take to the streets en masse. .


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