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The Hip-Hop Song That's Driving Cuba's Unprecedented Protests

A man waves a Cuban flag during a demonstration against Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel's government Sunday in Havana as large numbers take part in rare protests against the communist regime.
A man waves a Cuban flag during a demonstration against Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel's government Sunday in Havana as large numbers take part in rare protests against the communist regime.

Cuba is suffering through a summer of dire shortages, from food and electricity to medicine. Fed-up Cubans are taking to the streets in unprecedented protests — and they're voicing their outrage through a song called Patria y Vida — homeland and life.

The slogan is a spin on the communist regime's decades-old slogan of "patria o muerte" — homeland or death. In strong terms, the song accuses the government of destroying the quality of life in Cuba, a message that quickly found traction with protesters who are demanding change.

"No more lies. My people demand freedom. No more doctrines!" the song says. It calls for people to shout "patria y vida ... and start building what we dreamed of/ what they destroyed with their hands."

The viral hit has become a political slogan

Patria y Vida has been a phenomenon since its release this year. The song is a collaboration between a group of Afro-Cuban reggaeton and hip-hop stars based in Miami, such as Yotuel Romero and Alexander Delgado, along with rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, who live in Cuba. A YouTube video of the song has been viewed nearly 6 million times.

When the single was released, Romero, who is part of the group Orishas, said that for him, the song was motivated by a look back at Cuba's long history.

"Before the revolution, we had a beautiful Havana; now we have ruins," he told Billboard in February. "From that point on, I said, 'I'm not going to be quiet anymore.' "

Where the original Castro-era slogan was a call to arms for people to stand against outside influence, the new slogan tells people to hit the streets and take back their country.

"It's over now! And we're not afraid," the song declares.

Patria y Vida quickly became an anthem. When large protests erupted in April, NPR's Carrie Kahn declared it "astonishing" and a sign of "a growing movement challenging the regime like we haven't seen in decades."

After the song's release, Cuban authorities arrested Osorbo. His supporters have submitted complaints to the United Nations over his treatment, saying that the government is persecuting him for expressing his views and for helping create the song.

The protests have been some of Cuba's largest

Thousands of Cubans have been taking part in protests in Havana and elsewhere on the island, shouting their demands for more freedom along with calls for an end to high prices and economic turmoil. A run of electrical blackouts has added to their frustrations.

Crowds have been chanting slogans against Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as well as demanding more access to vaccines. Cuba has been experiencing a record spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in recent weeks. Overall, the nation has reported nearly 245,000 cases.

Marches and protests have been disrupted by police, who made mass arrests and used tear gas against demonstrators on Sunday. Videos circulating online have also shown officers firing toward crowds, reporter Nora Gámez Torres of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald told NPR.

"There were really unprecedented images coming out of the island," she said.

Why is Cuba suffering?

There are several main reasons, including U.S. economic sanctions that were tightened under former President Donald Trump and the pandemic's toll on the island's economy and infrastructure. Cuba is also getting less economic help from one of its main allies, Venezuela.

"The government is in debt and has no money," Torres said. "So the population has been enduring severe scarcities of food and medicine."

Many are also angry and frustrated by Cuba's policy of selling food in U.S dollars — which most of the country's people don't earn.

Remittances from relatives in the U.S. and elsewhere are also down. And like many places, Cuba's tourism industry has been hollowed out by more than a year of travel restrictions due to COVID-19.

It's not yet clear what will happen next, Torres said.

"Even if the government retains control, which is the most likely scenario, Cubans now see what they can do if enough people come out to protest," she said. "So the genie is out of the bottle now and the frustration is not going anywhere."

With the government facing a deep crisis, she warned, we'll likely see more repression in the coming days.

The Cuban government is blaming the U.S.

Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, blames the protests on "annexationist interests, paid and directed by the United States."

Díaz-Canel has said Cuba is facing difficulties that it knew were coming when the U.S. put tight economic sanctions on the country. And while the pandemic has made the situation worse, the president said every country in the world is being forced to cope with the coronavirus.

In a speech Monday, Díaz-Canel also dwelled on his country's national electrical system, saying its infrastructure is hobbled by both the U.S. embargo and by overconsumption.

The U.S. stance

President Biden said he strongly supports the protesters.

"The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime," Biden said during a White House event Monday. "I don't think we've seen anything like these protests in a long, long time if, quite frankly, ever."

Biden added, "The U.S. stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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