Transformed into the banners of those who criticize and support the Cuban government.
HAVANA TIMES – The dispute began on February 16th, when Cuban singer Yotuel, from band Orishas, published a video called “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and life). Appearing alongside him were duo Gente de Zona, singer Descemer Bueno and rappers Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo and El Funky – who form part of the Cuban dissident San Isidro movement, reported France 24 TV.
Six Afro-Cubans sang against the island’s government, who they blame for the economic crisis, food shortages and repression against those who think differently. Visual artist Luis Manuel Otero, coordinator of the San Isidro Movement – that was founded in 2018 to promote freedom of speech on the island – also appears in the video, although he doesn’t sing.
With the very name of the song, the artists are directly opposing the well-known phrase that Fidel Castro coined in March 1960, after the French freighter La Coubre exploded in Havana’s bay.
“Once again we have no other choice than the one with which we began the revolutionary struggle: that of freedom or death. Only now freedom means more: freedom means Homeland. And our dilemma is Homeland or death,” Castro said. His phrase became a symbol of Leftist governments in Latin America.
Now, Cuban artists are calling on the Cuban people to take action, by changing the words. “No more lies. My people are crying out for freedom, no more doctrines. We are no longer shouting homeland or death, but homeland and life,” the song lyrics say.
Yotuel explained to EFE news agency that the lyrics are reclaiming the right to live. “If the government of our country doesn’t like it, it’s because they are violating these fundamental rights (…) They are trying to humiliate our reputation, with slandering news and false statements so that the general population believe them and accuse us of being criminals,” he denounced.
Another part of the song goes: “You guys are just extras now, you have nothing left, you’re already falling. The people are tired of having to bear through another day. A new dawn is on the horizon,” and it says that the period of “62 doing damage” “has already ended”, referring to the years that have passed ever since the Revolution led by Fidel Castro triumphed.
The Cuban government responded to the song with tweets, anthems and messages in the media.
All of these slogans sparked strong criticism from the Cuban government and state-controlled media. Hours after the song was posted, president Miguel Diaz-Canel posted three tweets on his Twitter account. The first was to praise Silvio Rodriguez, the protest singer-songwriter.
Another one was to share an article from official newspaper Granma, which labeled the song part of the “worn-out counter-revolution” and “clumsy political meddling.” The last tweet was to applaud the anthem that some Cubans sang, remembering Fidel Castro’s words.
However, this was just the beginning of the actions and reactions that Yotuel’s song inspired. Ten days after “Patria y Vida” was published, this singer had already met with parties from Spanish Congress and European Parliament members to defend his song. “Cuban art and people are suffering harsh acts of repression, they want us to be submissive and quiet,” the artist told EFE news agency.
His words were supported by Dita Charanzova, vice-president of the European Parliament in charge of Latin American affairs; and by Leopoldo Lopez Gil, a European Parliament member and father of the Venezuelan opponent who shares the same name. They were the two representatives who were Yotuel’s hosts at the EP.
Meanwhile, another five artists were preparing a response in Cuba for the fury that Yotuel’s song was unleashing. This was how singers Raul Torres, Annie Garces, Dayana Divo, Karla Monier and Yisi Calibre posted their video “Patria o muerte por la vida”, on March 2nd. State-controlled media reposted the song. [They never allowed Patria y Vida to be aired.]
In the video, the artists from the first song are criticized: “licking the Empire’s ego makes a pretty dime”, referring to the fact that four out of these six Afro-Cubans now live in Miami. “Singing that you’re against poverty makes a pretty dime, while your vileness rolls around in velvet and satin,” the song goes.
Plus, in answer to the 62 years of damage remark in the previous video, this song says “the Revolution still has 62 millennia ahead.” The chorus in “Patria o muerte por la vida” is Castro’s phrase itself, repeated over and over, with other words, including “we will survive and conquer”, which is what Venezuela’s former president, Hugo Chavez, said in 2011 instead of his traditional “Homeland, socialism or death.”
However, the “Patria o muerte viviremos” song still isn’t as popular as “Patria y vida”. In the two days its been online, it has received over 600,000 views on YouTube; while the Orishas singer’s video has been played over 1 million times in three days, and has 3 million views now. Furthermore, the second song has received greater rejection on the platform, with over 62,000 “thumbs down”.
Beyond the rivalry between the two songs, their lyrics are just the tip of the iceberg of the division that exists within the arts in Cuba, a difference that exploded in 2018.
The San Isidro Movement
The San Isidro Movement’s participation in the “Patria y Vida” song isn’t unjustified, as it is the latest source of dissident voices against the Cuban government on the island.
Two years ago, different artists formed this group to protest against freedom of speech restrictions on the island, especially those stipulated in Decree-Law 349, which was promulgated in December 2018.
This law forces all artists to register with the State and gives government-led cultural institutions power to evaluate their work. Any art that isn’t officially registered is illegal. This gives “the Government the power to place artists on a ‘black list’ and to single-handedly destroy their ability to legally produce art,” the report by Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and Cubalex reports.
The dissent of Cuban visual artists, singers, university students and journalists grew until it culminated in the San Isidro Movement, which is led by Luis Manuel Otero. Many of the group’s members have been imprisoned on many occasions – including Otero himself – and they have been accused of crimes such as using the Cuban flag in a degrading way or attacking authorities.
Rappers Maykel “Osorbo” and El Funky, who appear in the song, were present at the protest led by the group in front of the Ministry of Culture last November, denouncing acts of repression against artists. Photos from this protest, which lasted two days, are also present in Yotuel’s music video.
This is why Yotuel’s song features so many artists who are against the Cuban government. However, it also has to do with greater WIFI access in Cuba, over the past few years. More and more Cubans living on the island have access to Internet on their cellphones, and this has revived the alternative art movement, according to ARC and Cubalex.
This can be seen in both songs. Rather than them being a battle of chorus’, their lyrics have become a political symbol that Cubans share on their social media. Right now, you can tell what residents’ political stance is by looking at their hashtags and the frames they use on Facebook that say: “Patria y vida”; or “Patria o muerte”.