Motherland and Life. That’s the name of the song that has put Cuba’s dictatorship on the defensive and forced it to react publicly. That’s new.
In earlier times, the Havana regime simply ignored a song – book, news report, statement or person – that criticized it. The favorite official strategy in the face of an uncomfortable issue was to make believe it did not exist. Or repress and censure. But this time – a song that went viral with more than 2 million clicks on YouTube and can be easily heard in Cuba on the Internet and social networks – the tyranny was forced to dance to the music playing.
The song speaks about the repression “at the point of a gun and words” that Cubans suffer, about the personal dignity “trampled,” the daily search for US dollars, the “mothers who cry for children who left,” the nascent rebellion known as the San Isidro Movement and the fatigue from waiting for “a new dawn.” It’s been 60 years “blocking the domino” – a popular Cuban slang for ending the game.
The song – written and interpreted by Yotuel Romero, Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcolm from the group Gente de Zona, singer-composer Descemer Bueno and rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky from the San Isidro Movement – poses a profound challenge to a regime in power for 62 years. “No more lies. My people want freedom, not more doctrine. Let’s not shout ‘Motherland or Death’ any more but ‘Motherland and Life,’” the lyrics demand.
The phrase “Motherland and Life” strikes a powerful chord with Cubans because it contrasts with the slogan “Motherland or Death” repeated again and again by Fidel Castro during the early stages of the Cuban Revolution. Motherland and Life is clearly a provocative message, and an optimistic one at a time of pandemic, economic crisis and an absence of freedom and democracy.
The official leader of the Cuban dictatorship, Miguel Diáz Canel defended the Castro slogan in an unusual Tweet Feb. 19, after a television program in which the Cuban national anthem was sung. “Motherland or death, thousands of us shouted last night,” he posted on his account, @DiazCanelB 3. And he’s not the only one to attack the song. Abel Prieto president of the Casa de las Americas and a former minister of culture, dismissed it as “musical pamphlet” and an “accumulation of slogans … with insults straight out of the worst anti-Cuban propaganda,” according to a Prensa Latina news report.
Cuban officials “are throwing a temper tantrum,” Descemer Bueno told me in an interview via Zoom. “It’s making them crazy,” added Randy Malcolm. “It’s a song that is making them crazy because the people are seeing the lies and deceit they have spread for more than 60 years.”
The duo in Gente de Zona, who had refused to talk about politics in public for many years and still have relatives in Cuba, have changed dramatically. “It’s the first time we sing without glasses, the first time we smile in a video, the first time we talk about a very political and very strong issue,” Alexander Delgado acknowledged.
Yotuel Romero, who lives in Madrid, believes the song reflects the real wishes of young Cubans. “The young people want life, they want freedom, they want rights, they want dreams,” he told me from Spain. “We don’t want the choice to be death.”
But the personal costs have been very high for the four singers. “Look, I think the price is not to return to Cuba,” Descemer Bueno acknowledged. It is very unlikely that after the success of Motherland and Life they will be allowed to return to the island to perform or see family. The song has condemned them to a permanent exile.
Ironically, the song Motherland and Life got started with the song Ojalá (hopefully) by pro-government singer and composer Silvio Rodríguez. Yotuel Romero, with the group Orishas, modified it into Ojalá Pase (hope it happens). And after erasing the original lyrics by Rodríguez, this new generation of Cuban singers created Motherland and Life.
The song is also a rejection of Cuba’s authoritarian and Communist history. “It’s over. You put down five-nine, I put down double two,” the lyrics say, using domino terminology to reference 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power, and the current decade of the 2020s, which will always have two twos.
The popularity of the song, and its spread around the island suggests Cubans are losing their fear of the political police. Losing fear, or at least controlling the fear, is always the first step before an important change. What is clear is that the Cuban dictatorship can no longer indefinitely and totally block access to the Internet and social networks. And that’s how it has stopped controlling the narrative of what happens on the island. That is also new.
The cultural rebellion in Cuba – with the San Isidro movement and songs like Motherland and Life – is moving at full speed. But it’s still unclear if that will be enough to shatter a system based on fear and government repression.
The initial enthusiasm during the Arab Spring – a string of protests around the region starting in 2011 – and its inability to force a change toward democracy showed how difficult it is to shift from a digital rebellion online to one in the streets.
The use of music and social networks against an authoritarian regime like Cuba’s is the start of a social and cultural transformation, but it never guarantees a democratic ending.
Nevertheless, these singers expect a much deeper and irreversible change in Cuba. “I believe this is the beginning of the end of the dictatorship,” Alexander Delgado told me. “These are different times,” Randy Malcolm added.
At the end of our Zoom interviews, the four said goodbye by forming the letter L with their thumbs and index fingers. That’s L for libertad – freedom.
A musical P.S. – You can listen to Motherland and Life on this link.