Homeland: Death or Life?
By Carlos E. García y Kathleen Connor
HAVANA TIMES – Hannah Arendt, in a famous 1963 text, emphasized that both the phenomenon of revolution and that of war were inseparable from the deployment of violence. To some extent, today, the case of the Cuban Revolution is no exception.
Under a 62-year authoritarian regime, the suppression of civil liberties permeates Cuban society to the point that simply questioning policies or leaders is tantamount to heresy. Calls for democratic reforms are met with the de facto response of zero tolerance. Meanwhile, recent protests of artists, musicians, and dissidents seem to spark new signs of change.
In a 1960 speech, Fidel Castro coined the slogan “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death), referring to the ultimate sacrifice all Cubans must make for the Revolution in the face of a possible US military invasion. This trifecta of war-revolution-violence has pervaded the government’s official ideology, even decades after the end of the Cold War in 1991 and even though US interference has been limited to the sustained embargo.
Beyond external political-economic sanctions, an internal cultural battle continues to wage on the island, corresponding with decades of repression.
The most publicized recent dissident protest has come from the San Isidro group, especially those who participated in a hunger strike, condemning the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of rapper Denis Solís. After Solís refused to accompany police for questioning November 9, 2020, he was summarily convicted of “desacato” (contempt), resulting in an 8-month maximum-security prison sentence.
Around the same time, a group of young journalists, artists, and activists, later known as 27N, demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020. They demanded freedom of expression and an end to censorship. Though first given dialogue, their efforts failed after a physical altercation in front of the ministry two months later. At that time, the Minister of Culture, Alpidio Alonso, attacked one of the protestors and the entire group was detained by political police. Additional arrests and periodic interrogations have targeted artists Tania Bruguera, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Camila Lobon, Carolina Barrero, journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, art curator Anamely Ramos, and poet Katherine Bisquet.
In tune with the ongoing cultural war and in response to Fidel Castro’s thanatological motto was the emergence of the song “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), performed by the singers Yotuel Romero, Alexander Delgado, Randy Malcom, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Castillo (Osorbo) and Elicer Márquez.
Whereas previous attempts to criticize the government have reached smaller audiences, such as with “San Isidro” by Havana singer La Crema, and performances from violinist Luis Alberto Mariño in Argentina, the current protest song, “Patria y Vida,” includes Latin Grammy winners Delgado and Malcom from the famous reggeaton group, Gente de Zona and Romero from Orishas.
The song went viral, with more than 2 million views in a week after its release on February 16, 2021. It now has over 4 million. Subsequently, Romero from Orishas, along with other prominent Cuban writers and artists, were invited to testify before some members of the European Parliament in Spain about their concerns for the fate of Cuban people.
The popularity of “Patria y Vida” over social media has allowed it to reach a greater number of viewers in Cuba than previous dissident protestors have ever accomplished. For this reason, the song is met with particularly bitter backlash from the Official Voice of the Communist Party of Cuba, Granma, reiterating: “Our only choice will always be homeland or death,” citing the words of Castro’s 1960 slogan.
This message was repeated on Cuban National TV, defaming the singers of “Patria y Vida” as mercenaries, terrorists, and pawns of Yankee imperialism – familiar labels given to citizens openly oppose the Castro regime.
On the ground in Cuba, activists who posted signs “Patria y Vida” have been denounced by mobs and their houses vandalized. Some, victims of the Cold War-era tactic of organized hate rallies and notoriously composed of plain clothed political police and fanatical government supporters.
Some of these rallies have been filmed and circulated on social media, as with the house of activist Anyell Valdés Cruz. She painted “Patria y Vida”, “No más represión” and “Abajo Díaz-Canel” on the facade of her home. A similar attack took place at the pro-democracy organization, Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU), and its leader, human rights activist Jose Daniel Ferrer, was arrested.
The artists who created the song aren’t surprised by its popularity or by the Cuban government’s reprisal. Rapper Eliecer Marquez, a.k.a. El Funky, stated in an interview “This song is going to be an anthem of freedom, a very hard blow for the dictatorship.”
Perhaps most telling of the Cuban government’s sensitivity to “Patria y Vida”, besides banning its title on national soil, is the effort to engage in musical retaliation, with the March 1 premier of its own track, “Patria o Muerte por la Vida”(Homeland or Death for Life).
Apart from the obvious semantic contradiction of its title, the song describes the singers of “Patria y Vida” as subjects who have sold their souls to imperialism with the mere purpose of making money. It brands them as “sellouts” and “hypocritical puppets.” At the same time, the song claims to prolong revolutionary sovereignty for “62 thousand millennia.”
How long the Cuban government can sustain a motto of death over life is a question that will be decided in the weeks and months ahead, as more houses bear the sign “Patria y Vida” and as more protestors are detained.
Historically, the commitment to death as inexorable to the condition of perpetual war is an ideology that, based on the antagonism between friend and enemy, saturates Cuban politics. In the absence of a US invasion, the enemy from the north must be merged, extrapolated to the vernacular enemy to maintain the warmongering status quo, thus creating new opposites to reproduce the same dynamic.
Through this logic, it is possible to understand why the Cuban regime uses the recourse of the state of exception. Though not formally declared, it’s used to justify the suppression of constitutional rights and civil liberties in the face of any symptom of dissent. From this perspective, every demand for freedom and democracy on the island is interpreted as annexationist. That is, as part of an agenda drawn up in the White House. Government rhetoric, mobilized by a language promoting hatred and exclusion, reappears to perpetuate the death drive that defines the Revolution.
“Homeland and Life” proposes to reinsert all Cubans into a discourse of common existence on the fringes of necropolitical pathos. This does not only mean the condemnation of the deaths of thousands of Cuban citizens who searched for a better life. Including the victims of the sinking of the tugboat “13 de Marzo”, those killed by criminal gangs in the Darién Gap, or the balseros (rafters) fleeing to the United States and drowned in the Florida Straits. Furthermore, it includes the call to protect present and future lives at the margins of a totalitarian system.
Contrary to the mantra of “Homeland or death”, the vital force of “Homeland and life” appeals to the affections that can bring forth new discursive pacts and, in turn, proposes another place of enunciation of the homeland in which the symbolic ties that manage to crystallize into a community that finally unites both Cubans from inside and outside the island.
At the heart of this momentum for unity, Hannah Arendt’s diagnosis should not be discounted. To avoid more violence or sacrifice in the name of a Revolution that has become a silent reign of terror, it is vital that “Patria y Vida” becomes the “anthem of freedom” that Eliecer Márquez and millions of Cubans hope for.