Havana, Cuba – Cuba’s communist government has long promoted and revered its musicians, and in return many songs were written about the revolution’s early ideas and glamour. Lyrics like Pablo Milanes’ “It would be better to sink in the sea before we betray the glory we have lived” still bring tears to Cuban eyes.
Yet the violence on Cuban streets since Sunday has caused a swath of the island’s most famous musicians to publicly criticise the Cuban state as the government appears to be softening its line towards the protesters’ demands, lifting some restrictions on food and medicine.
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Los Van Van is Cuba’s most famous salsa band, named for Fidel Castro’s 1970 call to the people to take to the sugar cane fields in an effort to make the island self-sufficient.
On Tuesday evening the Grammy-winning group released a statement on Facebook, saying: “We support the thousands of Cubans who are claiming their rights… We will always support the people, whoever they are, whatever they think.”
Adalberto Alvarez, a pianist, director and composer and at 72, an old-school gentleman of the island’s storied dancehalls, said: “The images I see of violence against a people who go out to express what they feel peacefully hurts me… Which side I am on? I am with the people.”
Members of the all but legendary Elito Revé Orchestra wrote: “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”
These proclamations are almost as unprecedented as the demonstrations that began in the town of San Antonio de los Banos on Sunday and spread swiftly across Cuba.
Thousands of people, citing exhaustion with power cuts and lack of access to food and medicines turned out in an estimated 40 different locations.
In some places the demonstrations grew violent, with rocks thrown and cars turned over. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel appeared on television to call the demonstrators “vulgar, indecent and delinquent”.
The images of government forces – police, special force avispas negras (black wasps) and Ministry of Interior staff in plain clothes – grabbing protesters from the crowds and dragging them away, shocked the whole country, prompting the artists to speak out.
And once some of the biggest names had made their views clear, others followed like a flood. X Alfonso, the musician who founded Fabrica de Arte, the most popular nightspot in Havana, spoke, as did Cimafunk who wrote Me Voy, the biggest hit of recent years.
“Not all of us have to think alike,” said Haila Maria Mompie, a salsa singer who has fronted government projects. “Today we should come together, the ones inside and the ones outside… in order to support the truth and to all of those who suffer.”
Like many of the musicians, she asked for restraint on both sides of the Florida Straits, given comments in the last few days from Miami politicians that all options, including military strikes, should be considered. “[We should not be] trying to kill each other as beasts,” she said.
In other countries, such a response from the arts might be expected. Yet in Cuba to speak against the government often leads to being silenced. Sixty years ago last month, Fidel Castro set out his expectations of intellectuals and artists in a famous speech. “Within the revolution, everything,” he said. “Against the revolution, nothing.”
It was an attempt to cement this idea in Cuba’s constitution in 2019, under decree 349 that appeared to require any artistic event to be signed off in advance by a state institution, that sparked the first signs of new dissent in Havana.
More than 300 young people connected with the arts gathered outside Cuba’s ministry of culture on November 27, 2020 to protest a police raid on a group of dissident artists on hunger strike. “It gives the sense that such protests are possible,” said one of those who attended at the time.
Since then there has been a regular, ongoing suppression of artists, including the celebrated performance artists Tania Bruguera and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara whose recent hunger strike ended in confinement in a state hospital.
The latest demonstrations emerged from more general woes. Due to missing mechanical parts – which the government says are unavailable because of the 60-year US embargo – Cuba is struggling to generate enough electricity. In some areas of the country this has meant extended power cuts.
This comes alongside terrible shortages as the government struggles to pay its bills and import food, due, it says, to the pandemic’s effect on the economy and what it calls the US “blockade”. Protesters in San Antonio de los Banos spoke of “blackouts and a lack of medicines”.
Many demonstrators chant “Patria y Vida”, meaning Fatherland and Life. Patria y Vida is the name of a reggaeton song by Descemer Bueno, Gente de Zona, and Yotuel, artists who in the past have worked within Cuba but now Iive in Miami. It attacked the regime with the lyrics “It’s over”. The title played on the old revolutionary slogan of Patria o Muerte, fatherland or death.
Since Sunday, it appears that the government has been restricting the internet, although as of Thursday that was easing.
The Cuban government blames the protests on meddling by the United States. “We are living through a new chapter of the non-conventional war,” said Rogelio Polanco Fuentes, a top official in the Communist Party of Cuba.
On Tuesday state media announced a 36-year-old man, Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, had been killed in violent protests on Monday night in the Havana suburb of La Guinera, saying the interior ministry “mourned his death” but pointing out he had a history of criminal activities.
More than 100 people involved in the demonstration are still missing, presumed arrested, according to Amnesty International.
By Wednesday evening, the government was conceding that the protesters may have some legitimate concerns. It set aside restrictions for the amount of medicines and food travellers to the island could bring in (until now arriving passengers were restricted to 10kg (22lbs) of medicines in their baggage.) The government has also waived customs fees for these items beginning July 19 until December 31.
Díaz-Canel said: “Perhaps it will be necessary to apologise to someone who, in the midst of the confusion that arises in events like this, may have been confused, has been mistreated.”
The new tone continued to strengthen on Thursday morning: “May Cubans never lack unity, respect and love for life,” the president tweeted.
COVID restrictions mean there are very few flights coming into the country, making it unclear how much effect the lifting of restrictions will have.
Not all of Cuba’s artists have stepped away from the authorities. Silvio Rodriguez, often said to be Cuba’s Woodie Guthrie or Bob Dylan, said the demonstrations had been “prepared and encouraged by the imperial regime”.
For artists, the pandemic has meant very hard times. It has been well more than a year since they have been separated from their audiences and incomes as venues like La Tropical, La Bombilla Verde, Diablo Tun-Tun and El Mejunje went dark.
Rafa Escalona, director of the music magazine AM:PM, told Al Jazeera that the appearance of the musicians’ statements was important. “The more notable [the musician] the better,” he said.
Earlier he had made a joke on Twitter: “At this rate, with its usual policy of censoring any artist who deviates from the official government discourse, I don’t know what Cuban radio and television will broadcast from now on.”