Historic protests swept Cuba on Sunday as thousands of people gathered across the island and expressed their outrage over longstanding economic hardships, food scarcity, and vaccine shortages, marking one of the country’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in the last decade.
Social media videos captured Cubans marching through city streets, shouting “Libertad!” But amid the cries for “Freedom!” another refrain was heard over and over again: “Patria y vida!” a reference to a song of the same name that’s quickly become the anthem for a nation that’s reached a boiling point.
The Cuban artists Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, Eliécer “el Funky” Márquez, and the reggaeton duo Gente de Zona collaborated on the rap track and released it in February, after which it amassed more than six million views on YouTube. The lyrics take direct aim at Cuba’s communist government: “No more lies. My people ask for freedom, not more doctrines. We no longer shout, ‘Motherland or death,’ but ‘homeland and life,’ and we begin to build what we dreamed, what they destroyed with their hands.” The title “Patria Y Vida” (“homeland and life”) is a bitter play on “patria o muerte” (“homeland or death”), a popular slogan associated with the rise of the communist leader Fidel Castro in the late Fifties.
The original phrase, which is still plastered on buildings in Havana today, was once a revolution-era call for Cubans to emancipate, and fight for, their homeland to the death. The slogan has some overlap with Cuba’s national anthem “La Bayamesa,” which includes a line proclaiming that “to die for the homeland is to live.” However, in “Patria Y Vida,” the artists turn this idea on its head and instead declare that what they want is their homeland — and to live.
“The idea was to make a song that would be an outpouring, a song that would say everything to people who are against [the idea of] ‘patria y vida,’” Romero, who is from Havana, told Rolling Stone in an interview over the phone in Spanish. “In it, we were saying, ‘It’s over — it’s done. The people want a change.’”
The collaboration fell into place seamlessly: Romero had been close to Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom, the members of Gente de Zona, for years, having known them since their days in Cuba. Delgado and Malcom told Rolling Stone in a phone interview in Spanish that Romero had reached out to them about getting together for a remix. However, once they started writing in the studio, they realized they wanted to do a completely new song that provided an unflinching look at what Delgado calls “the reality in Cuba.”
While Romero and Gente de Zona now live in Miami, Osorbo and El Funky still reside on the island and took a risk by openly rebuking the country’s leadership. The two rappers recorded their verses in secret and sent them back to the other artists, who got the track mixed in Miami. “Involving them was key since they’re rappers and people who have struggled against the dictatorship even while being in Cuba — as we say in Cuba, ‘tienen los huevos bien puesto’ [they have balls],” Delgado says. Malcolm adds, “These are artists who are willing to give their life for their country.”
Osorbo, in fact, was arrested by Cuban authorities after the song’s release and accused, according to the pro-government publication Cubadebate, of “crimes of attack, public disorder, and escape of prisoners or detainees.” He has been detained for more than 40 days.
That’s just one of the ways the Cuban government has seemingly tried to derail the momentum of “Patria Y Vida.” Shortly after the song’s release, op-eds denouncing the track as “full of hate,” as well as a response song defending the original slogan, appeared in pro-government publications. However, none of those efforts were enough to keep the message of “Patria Y Vida” from spreading. “People in Cuba who write to me are really moved by the song — it’s become like a shield amid the adversity they’re facing. To me, this is a blessing,” Romero says.
Romero has friends and family who are sharing what’s happening on the ground now, despite government attempts to censor and stamp out demonstrations. “The situation is really tense,” Romero says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and fear about the reaction of the dictatorship. They’ve shut off the internet so the world won’t see what’s happening, but through one way or another, we’re getting messages and people are connecting and trying to share what’s going on. We, the artists who are outside, are trying to give voice to the people.”
Delgado and Malcom add that the protests are becoming more violent and internet crackdowns have made it harder to connect with loved ones. “There are young people risking everything to go out in the streets, and they’re being met with bullets and cables and attacks,” Delgado says. He and Malcom say they’ve been banned from going back to Cuba since the song came out, but are committed to raising awareness of what’s happening on the island.
According to recent reports, more than dozens of Cubans have been arrested since Sunday’s demonstrations. Solidarity marches have formed in Miami, where people have continued to blast “Patria Y Vida” and unite over its message.
While the song has sparked global attention, what Romero wants is for it to serve as a vehicle to help people in Cuba rise up and achieve change back home. “I’d love for the song to be the last one that’s written about wanting a free Cuba and for all the songs that come next to be about finally returning to Cuba and reconnecting with loved ones,” he says.