This article was written by an anonymous Cuban author under the pseudonym of Luis Rodriguez.
Try as we might to be optimistic in describing Cuba’s current social landscape, it really is bleak. The inhabitants of the island are emotionally and psychologically drained. With unprecedented inflation, the dollarization of the economy, supply and medicine shortages, endless blackouts, increased insecurity and social inequalities, or worse still, the regime’s systematic repression of those who speak out, analysts agree that this is the greatest crisis Cuban society has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR).
However, thanks to the activism of artists in Cuba and their diaspora within the U.S. in recent years, beacons of light now instill a greater sense of hope in this bleak landscape. These artists speak out on behalf of the millions of Cubans denied their basic right to free speech by the country’s regime.
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Several talented artists have released various mobilizing songs throughout the years. Let’s not forget Nuestro Tiempo (Ya Viene Llegando) (Our Time Will Come) in 1991 by Willy Chirino, a track to which millions of Cubans danced during Cuba’s difficult period in the 1990s.
Chirino’s lyrics soon became an anthem for the balseros (rafters), who risked their lives trying to reach Florida’s shores. Nowadays, many Cubans become emotional just hearing it. Next up in 2021 came Patria y Vida (Homeland and Life), a song by artists and members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), for example Luis Manuel Otero, who remains in prison today.
This became a symbol of the anti-government social unrest on July 11, 2021, and sent shockwaves throughout the country. Today in Cuba, shouting out, “Patria y vida” is enough to land you in jail.
Just when it seemed as though Cuban artists’ voices had been silenced, two singers in exile in the U.S., Linier Mesa, and Dianelys Alfonso, known as “La Diosa” (“The Goddess”), released their song Cuba Primero (Cuba First), in Miami on April 16, 2023.
Each scene of its music video, which truly hit home in Cuba, deals with the symbolic connotations of the country’s historic exodus events, like Operation Peter Pan in 1959 and the 1994 Cuban Rafter Crisis, thus highlighting their underlying emotional toll.
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Just like Patria y Vida in 2021, which encouraged Cubans to protest, another Cuban song has now taken on the socio-political activism mantle.
However, as protests in 2021 had led to over 1,000 political prisoners, Cuba Primero instead calls upon artists in Cuba and their diaspora to speak out on behalf of the many Cubans suffering in silence. This is a time of great polarization among Cuban artists.
While some have chosen to be in compliance with the regime, others criticize this island’s current system. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for any Cuban artist to take a neutral stance.
As such, Cuba Primero is not only a protest song. It also urges us as humans, artists, and intellectuals to step outside our comfort zone, thus ending our passivity and speaking out about the daily ordeal that Cuban lives have become on this vast prison-like island. From this perspective, silence is also a form of complicity.
Activism and its mobilizing power could be a spark within this powder keg that Cuban society has become, especially among young people who regularly access audio-visual content on social media and YouTube.
This is a major concern for regime ideologues and their spokespersons, like Michel Torres Corona, who hosts the Con Filo television program. For some Cuban activists, like playwright Yunior García, Con Filo is the “most despicable” program, owing to its continued attacks on activists and critics.
In one of his most recent shows, Torres Corona slammed the Cuba Primero music video, by questioning its use of certain symbology, such as a shark to represent Fidel Castro.
While Cuba Primero may able to mobilize civil society, today’s circumstances are different from those of the 2021 protests. However, one thing the activists and the Cuban government do have in common is the battle of symbols raging between the regime’s narrative and the diaspora’s cultural output.
These tracks, from the classic Ya Viene Llegando to the more recent Patria y Vida and Cuba Primero, indicate the cultural ties between the island and its compatriots abroad becoming increasingly connected by a shared vision: the total and unconditional liberation of Cuban people from totalitarianism.
During these bleak periods, Cubans, therefore, don’t just suffer in silence; they also sing and dance to lyrics calling upon them to pursue their much sought-after freedom.