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How ‘Patria y Vida’ became the anthem of Cuban anti-government protests

<i>Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto/Getty Images</i><br/>
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto/Getty Images
"Patria y Vida

Scottie Andrew, CNN

“Patria o muerte” — “homeland or death.” It’s a phrase often emblazoned on Cuban pesos, one that was frequently invoked by former longtime leader Fidel Castro during the dawn of the country’s Communist revolution.

Now, the familiar saying has been repurposed for the protest anthem “Patria y Vida,” or “homeland and life,” a subversive song by some of Cuba’s most popular musicians that rails against social repression and a severe economic crisis in their home country.

“Now let us not shout ‘homeland and death’ but rather ‘homeland and life,'” sing artists Yotuel, Descemer Bueno and reggaeton duo Gente de Zona, among others. “May no more blood flow for desiring to think differently. Who told you that Cuba is yours if Cuba belongs to all my people?”

Cuban anti-government protesters have adopted the song as their mantra. Music can be a powerful tool of protest, and “Patria y Vida” is perhaps the closest any song in Cuba’s modern history has come to inspiring such a massive response. CNN spoke to researchers who specialize in Cuban history and Latin American protest music about what makes the song so powerful and why the protests it has soundtracked are unlike anything the country has seen in decades.

The makings of a great protest song

There are a few common ingredients powerful protest anthems share, said Christina Azahar, an ethnomusicologist from the University of California, Berkeley, who studies Latin American music.

Meaningful protest music denounces unjust acts. It calls for direct political action and provides an alternative account of history from the perspective of marginalized groups, she said. It helps if the song uses metaphor and allegory to spread its message, lest it be censored or buried, and moves people in some way. A great protest song creates a sense of community among its listeners.

“Patria y Vida” more than fits the bill, then: It criticizes the Cuban government’s attempts to censor performers and detractors who oppose its policies, as well as the economic crisis that is leaving much of the country without a steady supply of food, funds and medicine. It has inspired protesters from all corners of Cuban society to rise up against the government, protesting in the streets and risking arrest to voice their opposition. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a danceable reggae track, Azahar said.

“Music and art allow social movements to imagine the world [demonstrators] want to live in, either by validating or developing a sense of shared identity or history, or by envisioning future forms of coexistence,” Azahar told CNN in an email. “Among groups who have suffered constant dehumanization and who have been denied their basic civil rights, finding collective joy and dignity through music is a powerful form of protest.”

It’s a new twist on a familiar Cuban phrase

The phrase “patria o muerte” evokes strong memories in Cubans who grew up with it. It originated in Cuba’s Communist revolution in 1959, when the late Castro asked Cubans to “sacrifice their livelihoods and even their lives” in service of the revolution, Azahar said. The phrase is still in common use today.

“‘Patria y Vida’ critiques and reworks this national slogan by asking Cubans to imagine a form of self-government based not on austerity and homogeneity, but instead on sustaining the life of all people, not just the political elite,” she said.

The phrase defines a period of Cuban history that many residents remember as marked by suffering and economic hardship, both of which anti-government protesters continue to demonstrate against today, said Lillian Guerra, a professor at the University of Florida who studies Cuban history.

By alluding to “patria o muerte” in their song, Guerra said, the artists behind “Patria y Vida” “gave form and passion to what Cubans want: their country’s sovereignty and their ability to prosper, to grow, to live.”

It was released at the right time

“Patria y Vida” was released in February, just a few months before frustrations over scarce food and medicine in the country, issues aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions on Cuba, hit their peak.

The sentiment of “Patria y Vida” — that the performers love their country dearly but can’t stand to see their fellow Cubans struggle to eat, work and survive — struck Cubans. And even though Yotuel Romero, one of the lead artists on the track, said in a February interview with Billboard that the track was quickly criticized by the government, it received more than 2 million views the month its video was released. It’s now been viewed over 7 million times on YouTube.

“Cubans have a clear political vision of what is wrong and have never had a way to do anything about it. They still don’t. That is why they have taken to the streets,” Guerra said. “They have lost the fear that controlled them, that told each one of them that they could not contest the system because they would do so alone and pay the price. Now they see that they are not alone and they feel the power of that solidarity, that pride in being the true nation.”

“Patria y Vida” put those grievances and demands to song.

The performers belong to an artist-activist movement

Romero, Bueno and Gente de Zona members Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom are members of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists created in 2018 to protest the regime’s escalating cultural censorship, Azahar said.

Their involvement in the San Isidro Movement “has almost certainly helped grant authenticity to the message of ‘Patria y Vida,'” Azahar said.

The movement rose in opposition to Decree 349, a law that bans artists from performing in public or private spaces without the approval of the Cuban government’s Ministry of Culture, according to Amnesty International, an organization that fights human rights abuses.

“These musician-intellectuals gave voice to the sentiments of a majority of Cubans,” Guerra said.

Amnesty International, along with the artists who comprise the San Isidro Movement, claim that the decree could limit Cuban performers’ artistic freedom and Cuban residents’ ability to participate in the exchange of ideas.

In “Patria y Vida,” the artists criticize the Cuban government’s attempts to limit artistic expression, Azahar said.

“We are the dignity of an entire downtrodden people,” Bueno sings, “held up at gunpoint and by words that still mean nothing.”

It’s worth noting, too, Azahar said, that the San Isidro Movement and the popularity of the artists involved helped the song soar on social media, which in turn has helped amplify the protesters’ voices across the country and world.

The performers are Black Cubans

It’s significant, too, that the song taken up by anti-government protesters is performed by a group that includes Afro-Cuban men.

Cuba for years has considered itself “an ally to the rights of Black people around the world,” Azahar noted, from sending troops to assist several African nations in conflicts throughout the 1960s and ’70s to granting asylum to Black radicals from the US during the Civil Rights era. But Black Cubans continue to face racism and harassment in their country, including from their government, Azahar said.

While the artists behind “Patria y Vida” are singing about experiences they hope most Cubans can relate to, they knew from a young age how scarcity of resources can devastate communities. The artists grew up in low-income neighborhoods in the country, the Miami Herald reported in February.

Bueno told the Miami Herald in February that he “always thought that the impulse [for changes in Cuba] was going to come from the most resented among the people. It has always been known that in the poor neighborhoods, we have been living with the minimum.”

“Patria y Vida” has been adopted by anti-government protesters from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in Cuba. Its popularity reveals a “sense of solidarity among listeners who identify with the song’s critique of the government’s hypocrisy regarding racial and socioeconomic equality,” Azahar said.

The protests in Cuba are its biggest in decades

Guerra said the most recent protests are “unprecedented, historical” events due to their scale, sustained momentum and the attention they’ve attracted internationally. Some protesters are speaking out against the recent economic hardship, but others are using the protests to call for greater freedom.

“Cubans are tired of not being able to change their leadership, not being able to say that nothing about the state is working, not being able to be in control of any aspect of their lives,” she said.

Bueno echoed that statement in his interview with the Miami Herald, calling the myriad crises facing the country in 2021 “the moment many people like me have always waited for” — the moment they took to the streets to make their voices heard.

Guerra said she thinks “the movement will gain in numbers and credibility, even if it is tamped down through arrests and repression.” Whether “Patria y Vida” will continue to soundtrack future demonstrations remains to be seen, but it speaks to both decades of opposition to a government that protesters consider oppressive and the specific events of 2021 that drove Cubans to take to the streets on a massive scale.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Christina Azahar provided translations for select lyrics to “Patria y Vida.”

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