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‘Patria y Vida’ — Homeland and Life — Watchwords in Cuba’s Protests

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CARTAGENA, Colombia — “Patria y Vida.” Homeland and Life.

That chant has echoed this week as protesters took to the streets of Cuba in the biggest anti-government demonstrations the Caribbean island had seen in decades.

The words are the brainchild of the San Isidro Movement, a small group of grass-roots artists that formed in 2018 to push back against censorship by Cuba’s communist government. And they are an inversion of the phrase “Patria o muerte” — “homeland or death” — which has been embedded in Cuban culture for decades. “Patria o muerte” was repeated often by Fidel Castro, is graffitied on walls in Havana, and emblazoned on money.

“It’s been a very symbolic narrative used by the government since the revolution, saying you need to sacrifice everything for your country,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director of Amnesty International. “It is a propaganda that continues to be used by the government.”

Members of the dissident movement played off those words in a rap song, “Patria y Vida,” earlier this year. The song was created by the Cuban rapper Yotuel, the singer Descemer Bueno, the reggaeton group Gente de Zona, and other Cuban artists like Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Maykel Osorbo and DJ El Funky.

In a music video, Yotuel has the words painted on his chest in capital letters while Gente de Zona sing: “Now we don’t yell ‘Patria o Muerte,’ we yell “Patria y Vida.”

The song exploded in the island country, seeming to permeate the general consciousness of Cubans in the same way “Patria o Muerte” once did.

“This song has turned into a symbol of the movement, into a symbol of freedom for Cubans who are tired, who want change,” D.J. Eliecer Márquez Duany, or El Funky, said in an interview.

Mr. Márquez Duany said hearing the song as it rippled across the country, and its lyrics chanted in the streets of Havana, gave a feeling of hope.

The protests that erupted on Sunday were spurred by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, shortages in basic goods and clampdowns on civil liberties. Protesters have called for President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took the reins of Cuba in 2018, to step down.

Mrs. Guevara Rosas of Amnesty International said the lyrics of the song became emblematic in the protests because they were created by “ordinary people” who represent historically marginalized communities.

“It’s a movement challenging power, while not seeking political advantage,” she said.

Mr. Márquez Duany said he hoped the words spark change.

“We need to be heard, we need the right to express our frustrations,” he said. “Cuba won’t take it anymore.”

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