Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

Future Proletarians. Photo: HT

For a long time now, the political routine in Cuba has been unable to self-servingly employ the popular energy that characterizes the island’s people.

For many years political leaders used popular culture, especially music, to carry out ideological propaganda.

This was easy work during the days when people believed the Revolution would generate the social changes promised since the beginning: those of granting power to the people themselves.

However this has not happened and it’s an even more remote goal today.  What this means is that a strategy of masking authoritarianism with “entertainment and partying” is a thing of the past.

The relationship between popular cultural expression and official political discourse is a history loaded with betrayal and failure, like that represented in the musical career of the group Los Van Van, one of Cuba’s most successful and popular musical groups.

The songs of Van Van have been inspired simultaneously —though not equally— by the cultural legacy of the popular Cuban world and by its role as a promoter of official political discourse.

Since its founding in the 1970s, Van Van has served as a vehicle of mediation through which understandings and misunderstandings between popular and official minds were resolved.

Classic songs that spoke of La Habana no aguanta más (Havana can’t take any more), La titi manía (Robbing the cradle mania) and Los pájaros tirándole a la escopeta (The birds shooting the shotgun) expressed the state of the public’s mood, which called into question a social system unable to overcome an intense climate of conflict: People had begun asking when would the work of the official leadership finally bear the expected fruits?

Other songs were made on order for political leaders who desperately sought the support of the majority, support that they actually possessed for a long time.  Therefore many of the band’s famous songs, such as Súmate a mi actividad (Join in with what I’m doing),” exercised great rallying influence and power.

Los Van Van. Photo: granma.cu

Responding to the call of the State for people to do voluntary labor, seeking to contribute to the nation’s collective wealth (though one never hears news of this), these songs made us feel united.  What’s more, they were also enjoyed as an erotic and transcendental break from the norms of the home: it was an escape from the tutelage of one’s parents and the existing powers.  Plus, with a little luck, you could enjoy some occasional sex.

You had to “join in,” but with movement of your waist: súmate…, pero muévete, mueveteeé… (join in, but move your body, move) satisfied everyone: it stood for political sacrifice and popular enjoyment.

In These Times

In the more recent period, a deep and definitive rupture has been produced between the interests of the political leaders and those of the average individual.  Political propaganda has been exposed and made disjointed given people’s repudiation of songs that hide what they are.

Boy on Havana's Malecon Seawall. Photo HT

Although the Van Van continues to perform, people make a distinction after recognizing themselves in certain metaphors —such as: Chapeando con iré (Opening the way with good vibes), Se me pone la cabeza mala (Givin’ me a monstrous headache), Porque en La Habana hay que especular (Because in Havana you have to speculate)”— the band unexpectedly intones metaphoric slogans of Súmate a mi actividad, followed by other more recent creations like Ahora le toca a la juventud (Now it’s the youths’ turn) [a slogan of the Young Communist League].

People tend to suspect that the musicians are giving into pressure, yet they know by their own experience that doing anything else bears tremendous risks, and for this the musicians are forgiven.

People don’t stop dancing (who could in front of Los Van Van?), however the dancer, with a mocking gesture, expresses the defensive complicity of those who know to lie in wait.  It is a look that slips in between the cracks of power.  A hip movement (muévete, or “move your body”) is also a ritual of resistance and confrontation.

The State functionary is left isolated, like a castaway in popular imagery.  He or she is found, behind their desk, hemmed in by the slime that comes with absolute power, but which is no longer hegemonic.

Few “join in” today behind the call of political leaders in those feigned activities, at least not with movements of their hips, such a level of prostitution is impossible.


Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.

3 thoughts on “Popular Expression vs. Official Discourse

  • The stalinists must give up power for the good of socialism and the Revolution — but what stalinists have ever given up power, except to get a big, fat bribe in return from the most very wrong people? The commentary below is specious in the extreme, of course: socialism is still the immediate goal of Humanity, whatever the failings of its leadership over the past century. But do we have to do it the very hardest, worst way, all the time?

  • I read it the same way Grady, which is heart wrenching. But to sit back and let it go that way is to divest yourself of your own morality: maybe not so much for you as you have the ignorance of Proudhon backing your vision of the “alternative”. Proudhon! as a viable logic for socialism!?

    Really, just give Poverty of Philosophy a glance to know how full of holes Proudhon was. Jeez read Proudhon at any length yourself to know it.

  • If the PCC has lost you, Yenisel, it has lost the revolution.

    It now appears almost certain that the restoration of capitalism will occur in Cuba. Our modern cooperative socialist movement has formed too late. No one writing in or reading HT seems able to look at the lessons of cooperative corporations in the Basque region of Spain, and embrace the concept of a cooperative republic. Meaningful reform along cooperative lines therefore appears impossible.

    P-J Proudhon, after the bitter experience of the 1848 revolution in France, concluded that there is only one power in society capable of counter-balancing the raw power of the state, that of private property. He said however that such property must be owned directly by those who do the work. A century-long history of failure of the absurd formula of state ownership–the very power that needs to be counter-balanced–seems to corroborate his conclusion.

    You say that you “belong to a generation that must reconstruct civic culture in Cuba.” Best of luck.

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