One of my biggest frustrations with most journalism and op-eds related to Cuba is that everyone seems to think that they know better than the actual Cuban people themselves. Pundits, politicians, and many journalists frequently reveal a superficial understanding of Cuban issues, which often appears driven by their own personal politics. But it’s hubris to think you know more about what the protests in Cuba are all about than the actual protesters themselves.
To be clear: this isn’t about Trump. This isn’t about Obama. This isn’t about any of your favorite or most hated politicians. And this isn’t about the embargo.
Listen instead to what the Cuban people themselves are actually saying. The people demonstrating in Cuba this past week aren’t saying “Down with the embargo” or focusing on any U.S. president or U.S foreign policy. They are shouting, “Libertad.” Freedom. They are hashtagging #SOSCuba. They are criticizing the mismanagement of the country, and for the first time in decades are unafraid to do so. They are singing “Patria y Vida.”
Not sure what that last slogan means? If not, then you have failed to grasp a core tenet of what these protests are about. In a stinging rebuke to the Castro-era slogan, “Patria o muerte” (fatherland or death), prominent Cuban musicians have popularized a new slogan in a song that has captured the hearts of the nation: Patria y Vida.
Rejecting the binary choice between country or death, and as Fidel Castro put it, “Socialismo o muerte,” this generation is willing to embrace both country and life. They are defiant before the threat of arrest or punishment for speaking out.
They want a better life. They are calling for change. The song’s lyrics cry out: “No more lies. My people demand freedom, not more doctrines.” And it’s not just this one song; frustration with the one-party system has been growing in recent months. For example, the San Isidro Movement (@mov_sanisidro), a group of artists with a strong Afro-Cuban representation, has been gaining momentum since late last year, in the face of a harsh state crackdown on artistic freedoms. Various prominent artists were arrested for the content of their art, but nevertheless, the Cuban people are getting inspired to demonstrate.
Still, American commentators seem to think they know better.
It’s true that many Cubans are protesting mainly due to economic and social conditions, not political ones. But when doing so, they are frequently heard shouting “Patria y vida” in an act of open defiance to an authoritarian government that stifles dissent. And the Cuban government’s response? State police officers beating their own countrymen, arresting YouTubers (caught live on television), and shutting down the internet. This is the real story here, not Trump, Obama or the embargo.
Ask yourself this: does a foreign trade embargo justify banning all internal political parties? Does it justify throwing musicians and artists in jail? Beating people on the street who are calling for change to a 60-year-old dictatorship? Shutting down the internet and social media? Sure, the embargo contributes to the conditions on the ground in Cuba, but that’s not what the people are talking about.
The embargo debate is an important one, and should not be shrugged off. But that is not what these protests are mainly about. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. So listen to what the people on the streets are shouting. Find out what is being censored. And keep your own damn politics out of it. This isn’t about you. It’s about the Cuban people.
As a tribute to all those Cubans who have been detained or imprisoned, I offer as a tribute —a sign of respect— a song I wrote in 2009 about all political kidnappings throughout Latin America, both from the left and right-wing governments: “Desaparecidos.” Sadly, it resonates today.
Yo confieso a mi pueblo que la culpa la tengo yo, ver un crimen en silencio es cometerlo
I confess to my people, the fault is mine. Watching a crime in silence is the same as committing it.
Dave Sandoval is a Cuban-American musician and commentator. You can connect with him on Twitter @DelExilio.