People shout slogans in Havana, Cuba July 11.

This time, Cuba’s protests are life-affirming

A new song that substitutes life for death united the demonstrators, giving rise to unifying slogans on shared ideals.

Mass protests to end a dictatorship often turn a corner when public anger gives way to unity around shared ideals. Cuba may have reached that point Sunday. While the thousands of Cubans who took to the streets have plenty to complain about – blackouts, long food lines, and a new record in COVID-19 deaths – their common refrain was rather uplifting. In fact, the demonstrations continued into a second day despite a crackdown by the island’s Communist government.

Protesters chanted slogans such as “Yes, we can” and “We want liberty.” The fact that many livestreamed the protests – the largest since 1994 and certainly the most widespread – reflected how spontaneous they were. Perhaps the most unifying appeal among the crowds was the singing of a relatively new song, “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”).

Released only in February by a group of dissident artists, the rap and reggaeton hit plays off the slogan of the Communist rulers – Homeland or Death (Patria o Muerte) – which dates back to the 1950s revolution against another dictatorship.

Note how the song switches out death for life in the title. Here are some of the lyrics:

No more lies! My people demand freedom! No more doctrines!

Let us no longer shout “Homeland or Death!” but “Homeland and Life!”

And start building what we dreamed of…

The best democratic revolutions are built on dreams , or expectations of higher civic values. The opening of the American Declaration of Independence, for example, affirms this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Civil liberties are still few in Cuba. The country’s 11 million people have only had limited internet access since 2019. That access was quickly shut down during Sunday’s protest, and Cuba’s new Communist leader, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, felt compelled enough by the popular uprising to rush to an old media, television, to answer the calls for elected government. One lyric in “Homeland and Life” is particularly pointed at him: “Who told you that Cuba is yours?” it asks.

The coming of social media has bonded Cubans in new ways, not only in quickly joining protests but also in discovering what democratic values they want together. That truth, more than anger at a broken economy and harsh repression, was finally seen on the streets of Havana and many other cities this week.

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