High-profile Cuban musicians show rare public support to protesters

High-profile Cuban musicians from salsa band Los Van Van and jazz pianist Chucho Valdés to pop star Leoni Torres have offered rare public support to protesters and criticized Communist authorities’ handling of the worst unrest in decades.

Thousands of Cubans joined rare protests nationwide on Sunday over shortages, Covid-19 and political rights. The government blamed US-financed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting economic hardship caused by US sanctions.

Musicians in Cuba have historically steered clear of addressing political topics that risk bringing them reprisals at home if deemed critical of the government or making them hate figures abroad among Cuban exiles if they appear supportive.

But Sunday’s social explosion, including videos on social media of some violent altercations between protesters and security forces, has changed that.

“We support the thousands of Cubans who are claiming their rights, we must be listened to,” Grammy winners Los Van Van, for decades Cuba’s most popular band, said on Facebook.

“We say no to violence, no to clashes, and call for calm on our streets.“

One person has died in a protest where, according to a resident, security forces used gunfire against protesters attacking them with stones and other objects.

“What pain, what sadness to see the abuse of power by Cuban forces of order, to see how they attack ordinary and pacific people,” said salsa band Elito Reve y su Charangon on Facebook.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel has urged government supporters to fight back and activists say “rapid reaction brigades” – state-organised bands of civilians – are squashing dissent.

On Sunday, counter-rallies sprung up where people shouted pro-government slogans. Reuters journalists saw people in civilian garb wield sticks and help police detain protesters.

Special forces were among a heavy police presence still guarding the streets of the capital Havana on Wednesday.

“There is no way to go to bed and sleep calmly knowing the situation we are living,” wrote urban musician Yomil, whose real name is Roberto Hidalgo, on Twitter. On Sunday, he livestreamed his brief detention by police as he was heading out to protest.

Cuban authorities say security forces have also been wounded in the protests and denounced “vandalism”.

“They (the government) have blood on their hands,” said pop star Leoni Torres in a Facebook Live video.

“They should not have called on Cubans to go out onto the streets, they should have done things differently,” he added, calling for a free election.

In a country proud of its cultural scene, artists have always been closely scrutinized for hints of political sentiment. Many remain loyal to the government.

Folk singer Silvio Rodríguez, considered the voice of the Cuban revolution, said on his blog that the country should defend its achievements amid demonstrations “fomented by the imperial regime” but also meditate on its situation.

A hunger strike by a group of dissident artists sparked a rare protest outside the culture ministry last November calling for greater civil liberties.

Building on that, some Miami-based Cuban musicians including reggaeton duo Gente de Zona released an anti-government anthem Patria y Vida (Homeland and Life) that went viral.

The title repurposes the old slogan “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death) – emblazoned on walls across the Caribbean country since Fidel Castro’s 1959 leftist revolution – to criticize the sacrifices forced on people.

The hit sparked a furious response from authorities and unleashed a battle of pro and anti-government songs.

“Patria y vida” was a catchphrase at the protests on Sunday, alongside “Freedom” and “Down with Communism”.

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