After unprecedented protests, ‘Cubans need a response now’

Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP
People outside the Versailles Cuban restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami protest during a demonstration in solidarity with Cubans who took to the streets July 11, 2021, in one of the largest protests to take place on the island.
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Fidel Castro is famous for his revolutionary slogan – “Homeland or Death.”

But as Cubans grow increasingly restless over their government’s failure to curb COVID-19, fix the crumbling economy, or even provide a steady electricity supply, they have turned the motto on its head and made it their own – “Homeland and Life.”

Why We Wrote This

“Homeland or Death” was Fidel Castro’s slogan. A growing number of Cubans, fed up with their revolutionary government, are asking, more hopefully, for “Homeland and Life.” And they have a song about it.

That’s the title of a reggaeton song that became the unofficial anthem for demonstrators who took to the streets in unprecedented anti-government protests in July.

“The reality in Cuba ... is so dire that this was the moment to change that national motto,” says El Funky, a Havana-based musician who helped write the song.

The government stamped out the demonstrations and police have arrested more than 500 democracy activists, according to Cuban human rights groups. That has cast a chill over the island, but it hasn’t deterred one young protester, a teacher in her mid-20s.

“We’re not afraid anymore,” she says. “We are not afraid to live and now that we have started saying it, we won’t stop. We want liberty from oppression.”

When Havana-based musician El Funky was invited to collaborate on a song about the need for change in Cuba, he was thrilled. He admired the other musicians involved in the project and felt a strong connection to the lyrics, which call for a new vision for the island.

But he never imagined the reggaeton song and video, “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), released in February, would become the unofficial anthem for unprecedented protests on July 11.

Exhausted by the daily hardships of a crumbling economy, a worsening pandemic, and a government slow to respond to citizens’ needs, thousands of Cubans poured into the streets in more than 40 cities, without any central organization. There had been nothing like it in Cuba’s history.

Why We Wrote This

“Homeland or Death” was Fidel Castro’s slogan. A growing number of Cubans, fed up with their revolutionary government, are asking, more hopefully, for “Homeland and Life.” And they have a song about it.

“‘Homeland and Life’ turns the famous phrase of Fidel Castro – Homeland or Death – on its head,” says El Funky, born Eliecer Márquez Duany. “But the reality in Cuba is that the levels of need and misery are so dire that this was really the moment to change that national motto. We Cubans want life and prosperity; we want a better future.”

For the protesters and their supporters, the idea of “Patria y Vida” is rooted in hope. The majority are young, never knew a Cuba pre-Castro, and are plugged into social media and the outside world. The song expresses the mood that inspired so many people to risk speaking out publicly against the authorities.

“This idea of homeland and life, I relate to it so much,” says Deisy Castillo Fernandez, a teacher in her mid-20s living in Havana. She says she was nearly brought to tears when she stepped into the crowd of protesters on July 11, her first protest ever, and heard someone start a call-and-response with the word “freedom!”

“We love our homeland. We love our country,” Ms. Castillo says. “I’m very happy to be Cuban. What I’m not happy about is the government. When the people together rise up, I think it’s because we just can’t do this anymore,” she says. “We can’t suffer like this. All these laws and restrictions against us – we want Cuba and a future, not death.”

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
Alberto Betancourt and his mother, Mayra Perez, pose with a picture of his sister Daylin Betancourt, who was detained by police during a protest, in Havana, July 19, 2021.

“Wake-up call”

Edel Pérez, an actor and news presenter at an online outlet in Havana, says he has regularly had to stand in line for more than six hours over the past year in order to buy staples like chicken. “Sometimes I arrive at 5 a.m. and when it’s finally my turn, I find they’ve run out,” he says. “It all starts over again the next day.”

When he heard “Patria y Vida” for the first time, he felt like it put words to his ever-growing desire to simply have a chance at making his dreams come true in his homeland.

“Let’s no longer shout ‘homeland or death’ but ‘homeland and life,’ and start building what we dreamed of, what they destroyed,” the artists sing. “May no more blood flow for daring to think differently.”

Although the protests were stamped out by police, and President Miguel Díaz-Canel called his supporters onto the street to “defend the revolution,” Mr. Pérez expects to see more large-scale demonstrations in the future. “We’re finally expressing everything that’s built up over the past 62 years,” since Castro’s revolution, he says.

The government is no doubt worried, not least because Mr. Díaz-Canel lacks the revolutionary bona fides of his predecessors, both Castros. The wave of spontaneous protests was largely organized on social media, which has taken off in the past few years as long-restricted internet access spreads. After the protest, internet service and some landlines were cut. The state-run media has painted the largely peaceful protesters as looters and vandals; Mr. Díaz-Canel blamed U.S. sanctions for the discontent, and citizens report a beefed-up police presence on the streets.

The Cuban economy contracted by more than 11% last year, as the pandemic battered tourism and remittances from abroad. Like Mr. Pérez, many Cubans are queuing for hours for basic goods and experiencing prolonged electricity outages during some of the hottest months of the year. COVID-19 restrictions intensify their misery.

Eliana Aponte/AP
Residents get food at a government-subsidized bodega in Havana, July 15, 2021. Many Cubans are queuing for hours for basic goods, a frustration that fueled this month's protests.

The protests “are a wake-up call for the government, but not because they realized there is a problem. The government knew about these problems” of hunger, poverty, and suffering, says Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Havana-based social science journal. “It made them see the situation is much more urgent and critical than they thought. The protests showed the government can’t wait anymore. Cubans need a response now.”

There have been some concessions since the protests, such as temporarily allowing travelers to bring food and medicine into Cuba untaxed. Few people are able to travel to and from the island during the pandemic, however.

The price of expression

In the early years following Cuba’s revolution, musicians were largely overlooked by the government, says Robin Moore, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on Cuba. “The first generation of Cuban youth raised under [Castro’s] new leadership, a new education system, exposed to a lot of ideas about socialism and leftist ideals, were questioning a lot of things,” Dr. Moore says. “Eventually, the government decided it was better to use these musicians as advocates for the revolution, so they started giving them support ... and they were expected to conform to the government’s position.”

El Funky says he’s been expelled from the Cuban association of rap artists, which means he is no longer eligible for monthly stipends and won’t have his music played on the radio or TV.

“Artists have to walk a fine line. And clearly that line is being crossed right now,” says Dr. Moore. “What I’m seeing from the ‘Patria y Vida’ folks is a lot of sympathy for the Cuban people. There’s a real sense of solidarity that might not have been expressed by early artists in Cuba,” who may have called for creating a better society, but didn’t call for a change in regime. “In that sense, ‘Patria y Vida’ is really raising the bar [on protest songs in Cuba], and those on the island are putting their careers on the line.”

Yet for some Cubans, the song’s popularity is a distraction.

“We don’t need more mottoes, and that’s what it is, whether Homeland or Death or Homeland and Life,” says Sergio Castillo, a TV director in Havana who supports the protesters’ cause, but felt it was risky amid rising COVID-19 cases. “I’d prefer reflection, as a country,” he says. “It’s fine to say you’re disappointed or frustrated or want things to improve, but what about concrete proposals?”

Despite the government crackdown on the protesters – upwards of 500 activists have been detained, Cuban human rights groups say, and a number of them have been subjected to rapid, lawyerless trials – people like Ms. Castillo insist they’ve lost their sense of fear.

“We’re not afraid anymore,” she says, despite being sprayed with tear gas as she returned home from the march in Havana. “We’re not afraid to live, and now that we’ve started saying it we won’t stop: We want liberty from oppression.”

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