This article originally appeared in the Daily Business Review on August 16, 2021 and was written by Candice Balmori.
On July 11, for the first time in decades, the world watched as thousands of Cuban citizens poured into the streets in peaceful demonstration against their government demanding, above all else, freedom. This clarion call has roots that are decades old. Acknowledged even within the verses of Cuba’s National Anthem, it is a well-known composition whose tempo has changed ever so slightly throughout the years, quickening now, in part, with the pace of the global health pandemic. To understand the true implications of the instruments at play, it is helpful to understand their origins.
In the summer of 1961, Fidel Castro gave a speech that set forth his regime’s position on cultural “freedom.” Summoning the island’s leading writers and artists to the deliberately selected site of the National Library of Cuba, before a crowd of intellectuals he declared: “This means that within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” The message was unmistakable: criticism was not welcome. Nearly six decades of censorship later, in December 2018, the same Cuban regime effectuated Decree 349, mandating that all artists obtain advanced permission from the government before any public or private exhibition of art or music. Among other content-based prohibitions, the law banned art and music using “national symbols” to “contravene current legislation.” As a result, a collection of artists known as the San Isidro Movement formed to protest the regime’s persistently repressive cultural censorship.
Several members of that San Isidro Movement, including a group of Afro-Cuban musical artists from both within the island and in exile, subsequently collaborated to write and produce music that was in direct contravention of Decree 349’s mandate. And they did so while deliberately re-appropriating “national symbols”—an ode to true dissent. Co-opting one of Castro’s most infamous political phrases, a motto that is even emblazoned on Cuba’s national currency, a cleverly employed play on the phrase “patria o muerte” (homeland or death) became “Patria y Vida” (homeland and life).
Cuban music has a long history of political expression. For instance, as early as the 1800s, slaves and members of the free Afro-Cuban community employed African-derived music and dance as a form of protest against oppression. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, songs such as “Tear Gas Grenade,” by Miguel Matamoros, used double entendre to reflect social commentary on the use of excess force. Of course, even Celia Cruz’s internationally renowned “Guantanamera” is closely tied with Cuban patriotism. In the case of “Patria y Vida,” the 2021 song denounces the failed Cuban revolutionary state with a distinctly Cuban son-inspired pulse. With nearly eight million views on YouTube, Patria y Vida went viral within only a matter of months and found its place in recent Cuban musical history.
And so it was that on July 11, almost exactly 60 years after Fidel Castro’s speech to intellectuals and artists, after six decades of repression, thousands of Cubans on the island converged in demonstrations across more than a dozen major cities chanting refrains like, “we are not afraid!” and “freedom!” and “down with the dictatorship!”
In a truly subversive act, Cubans also chanted the chorus of “Patria y Vida,” while the decibel level of these demonstrations rose.
The Cuban people themselves documented their momentous recent protests. Forsaking the state-controlled media and using the limited technology available to them, Cubans filmed and photographed the organic, peaceful demonstrations of hundreds of their compatriots in the streets, sharing them beyond the island’s borders and hash-tagging “#SOSCuba.” Those videos and images documented Cubans of all ages and races walking side-by-side and openly raising voices together, with empty stomachs, past crumbling infrastructure and under-resourced medical facilities. In a country where true freedom of expression is punishable by unforgiving law, those acts were nothing less than show stopping.
Despite the government abruptly censoring social media platforms, blocking internet and telephone access, and broadly shutting off electricity, the Cuban people also captured the regime’s response to their demonstrations: plainclothes government agents and Black Beret operatives alike brutalizing their neighbors, beating teenagers with batons, firing rounds in the direction of peaceful crowds, and storming into households to forcibly remove participants. Then, just as it had in past decades, the Cuban regime went door-to-door, collecting and detaining demonstration participants and dissident activists. To date, according to the group Cuba Decide, there is a conservative estimate of 805 individuals—and counting—who have been detained or arrested in relation to #SOSCuba.
Exacerbated Political and Economic Repression in Cuba
A course of systematic repression and a serial failure of Cuban central economic planning have contributed for decades to a repudiation of Cuban political leadership. But, in the context of a global health pandemic, the follies of the regime’s ineffective top-down policy-making have been exacerbated.
Fundamentally, the lack of free, fair, and transparent multi-party elections at every level of government has left the Cuban populace entirely without a voice. Cuba’s single-party electoral system ensures that even within the nomination process, elections are controlled by the sole voice of the Communist Party of Cuba from the most basic of municipal levels to national politics. Cuba’s voiceless electorate lacks diversity of platform, policy and approach. Given the lack of opportunity for political redress, the absence of hope for an alternative political direction has, understandably, fomented a pressure cauldron among the disenfranchised Cuban people.
Moreover, Cuba’s centrally planned command-style economy has curtailed the potential for thriving private ownership industries to the benefit of only the political élite. The mismanaged, inequitable, and overly cumbersome bureaucratic model has led to market inefficiencies translating to shortages of goods, higher prices and general frustration over scarcity for the average Cuban citizen. In short, the Cuban regime’s own economic policies have undercut the resources available to its people, and all in a time of acute need during the health pandemic.
Widespread inaccessibility in Cuba also extends to essential medical services. This is especially critical during a global health pandemic. For instance, the Cuban regime’s most lucrative export has been its own human capital: the trafficking of medical professionals abroad. Leasing healthcare professionals to foreign governments has brought the Cuban regime an estimated $11 billion each year. By contrast, unable to negotiate their own labor contracts, Cuban medical workers typically only receive an estimated 20% of the salaries that host countries actually pay for their assistance. For a country that has marketed a global army of medical brigades, the Cuban regime has seemingly forsaken its domestic population during the COVID pandemic by continuing to commodify their medical professionals abroad.
Additionally, the lack of an independent judiciary in Cuba and the absence of separation of powers has led to widespread injustice on the island. The National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP), Cuba’s legislative body, has broad powers to both adopt laws and elect the directors of the main judicial and oversight institutions. Article 108 of the Cuban Constitution permits the ANPP to issue a general and mandatory interpretation of the Constitution and laws. Article 109 even gives it the power to elect the president and justices of the Supreme Court. The ANPP is also granted the power to elect the attorney general of the Republic, a unit subordinate to the president. All of this is to say: the various branches of the Cuban government exercise no independent autonomy or impartiality.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, citing testimony from a former Cuban judge, has reported that defendants in Cuba do not have access to a lawyer until seven working days have passed; and they may remain without legal representation long after that. Coupled with Cuba’s practices of arbitrary detention and transferring detainees between locations before notifying family, Cubans detained or arrested for “public disorder” (and other alleged crimes) while peacefully protesting have little recourse now to fair representation before the law.
While the July 11 demonstrations were the only mechanism available to the Cuban people to air their grievances and raise their voices, these demonstrations were nonetheless undertaken at great personal risk to the thousands who participated.
‘Patria y Vida’
The “clarion call” for freedom, aptly referenced by both the Cuban National Anthem and President Joe Biden in his recent statement, is a complex composition. Nonetheless, for decades, the Cuban regime has orchestrated its politics, legislation, economy, and judiciary with a single conductor whose concern for centralization of power consistently prevails over the welfare of its citizenry. If it listens closely enough, though, the international community can now hear the chorus of voices in Cuba that seek to drown out the state’s crude instrumentalities. The tempo increased on July 11 and the widespread social justice of reform-inspired lyrics across the island were produced, recorded, and broadcast live with heartfelt determination by the Cuban people. As with its musical predecessors, Cuba’s most recent rumba, son, and guaguancó-inspired reggaeton notes have proven to be a powerful melody. With continued international attention and pressure, there is hope on the horizon that the Cuban people may finally, after more than six decades, become their own composers.
Cue the chorus: “Patria y Vida… Ya se acabó, Sesenta años tracado el dominó.”
Candice Balmori, an associate with Weiss Serota Helfman Cole + Bierman, represents municipalities on a broad range of issues, including counseling on public/private partnerships, public finance, procurement, utilities, land use and zoning, and compliance with public records, sunshine and ethics laws.
To read the original article in the Daily Business Review, click here.