Songs of the Revolution

The role of music in politics in Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Cuba

N. Mozart Diaz
May 28 · 14 min read
Fidel Castro addresses a crowd in front of the presidential palace in Havana shortly after declaring the Cuban revolution a success in January 1959 [Harold Valentine/The Associated Press]

Historical Context of Cuba

uba has had a long history of both colonialism and imperialism. The colonization of the island began in 1492 with the landing of Christopher Columbus and claiming the island for the Spanish crown (Suchlicki, 1974: 3). The first permanent settlement on the island was established in 1496 and hence after the island was divided into different municipalities and was ruled much like other Spanish colonies: agriculturally based with hints of feudal elements (MacGaffey & Barnet, 1962: 2). The indigenous communities and the Spanish were then segregated throughout the island; this social structure lasted for centuries under the Spanish crown (MacGaffey & Barnet, 1962: 4). The governor-general ruled the colony with complete authority over political, military, and judicial affairs (Suchlicki, 1974: 21). This type of political system would persist for centuries for as long as the Spanish crown was unchallenged on the island.

This Spanish hegemony, however, was challenged in the latter half of the 19th Century with the emergence of widespread, nationalist revolts, culminating in the declaration of Cuban Independence in 1899 (Macgaffey & Barnet, 1962: 12). This independence, however, was only half-won since the United States of America stepped in as an imperialist power which made Cuba an American protectorate under the Platt Amendment. Under the Platt Amendment, the independence and sovereignty of Cuba were undermined through a series of articles that limited the extent to which Cuban independence can be exercised (Macgaffey & Barnet, 1962: 14). The amendment also allowed for the establishment of American military bases and American military intervention should Cuban independence be threatened (Suchlicki, 1974: 96). American occupation of the islands ended officially in 1902 but despite this, the United States kept the subservience of Cuba under close surveillance (Suchlicki, 1974: 99).

For the better part of the next three decades, the republic underwent a series of failed revolts, fraudulent elections, and political instability as radical veterans of the Cuban War for Independence as well as nationalist movements and groups could not readily accept the lukewarm independence that the country received from the Americans (Suchlicki, 1974: 99). In 1933, however, political instability had destabilized the republic entirely and following chaos from both military and civilian camps, the incumbent president, Carlos de Manuel Cespedes, was ousted and Cuba was ruled by a committee of five members from both civilian groups — comprised of mostly students — and the military (Suchlicki, 1974: 124). This regime quickly collapsed, however, and power was bequeathed onto Fulgencio Batista: a sergeant turned colonel in the chaos of the collapse of the republic.


Castro and his rebels hiding in the jungles of Cuba. June 1957. Bettmann/Getty Images

The 1953 Cuban Revolution

The regime of Fulgencio Batista forms the background of the 1953 Cuban Revolution. Attempts at reform were made during the years which followed the rise of Batista to power, however, only the repeal of the Platt Amendment was a notable achievement of this period (Macgaffey & Barnet, 1962: 14). Other issues such as hard labor, social inequality (Macgaffey & Barnet, 1962: 15), and worsening government corruption were not addressed by the Batista Regime, as such instability in the country continued. To further this instability, Batista launched a coup d’etat in 1952 for fear of losing the general elections which enhanced the anger of student activists (Suchlicki, 1974: 148). Fidel Castro was a member of one of these student groups advocating for social change albeit change won through violent means. Castro launched an attack on a military barracks in Moncada on July 26th in 1953 (Suchlicki, 1974: 162). The attack was a catastrophic failure which resulted in the jailing of Castro after failing to escape to the mountains of Cuba (Suchlicki, 1974: 163).

The attack, however, gained national prestige as it gained nationwide coverage. Further, while Castro was in jail, he was able to write a pamphlet of his doctrines — now known as “History Will Absolve Me” — and was disseminated throughout the urban centers of Cuba (Suchlicki, 1974: 164). Riots and rallies broke out sporadically in these urban centers snowballing from the coup, the attack on the barracks, and the failure of political parties and organizations to find peaceful means to reform (Suchlicki, 1974: 165–166). To combat the escalating violence, the regime meted out ‘counter-terrorism’ tactics to pacify the organizations (Suchlicki, 1974: 167).

In this time, Castro was released from jail and found his way around North America, looking for funds and armaments by which he could launch a revolution (Suchlicki, 1974: 168). In this time he met and befriended an Argentine doctor named Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara which was completely sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. Aboard the yacht Granma, Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara returned to Cuba to direct the revolutionary sentiments already brewing in the country in 1956 (Suchlicki, 1974: 168). Upon returning to Cuba, Castro and his allies fled immediately to the Sierra Maestra mountains where they would launch guerrilla warfare against the Batista Regime. From here, the July 26th Movement would proclaim the overthrow of the Batista Regime as the sole, primary, national task with other social reforms taking second priority (Suchlicki, 1974: 170). Following the failure of reformists and other revolutionary groups, the Movement would become the sole revolutionary group with any consequence butting heads with the Batista Regime.

Guerrilla warfare eventually eroded the legitimacy and the will of the Cuban military to continue fighting its own citizens and by the end of 1958, the military had refused to continue fighting — dealing the final blow to the regime (Suchlicki, 1974: 174). Batista fled to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day in 1959 as Castro and Guevara went down from the mountains to take control of Havana (Suchlicki, 1974: 177). By the time the forces of Castro reached the capital, it was clear that the power of the state was held by Castro and his Movement (Suchlicki, 1974: 177). The July 26th Movement allied with the Partido Socialista Popular to create the Cuban Communist Party and as soon as Castro took power began enacting reform and confiscatory programs to redistribute wealth to the population (Suchlicki, 1974: 179). Castro then aligned Cuba to the Socialist-Communist bloc, heightening Cold War tensions in the Western Hemisphere.


Historia De La Nueva Trova Cubana (Album Cover)

Songs of the Cuban Revolution

During the Cuban revolution, the cultural aspect of the country and nation was torn in numerous directions with those of the revolutionaries and those that were not exactly pro-state but had enjoyed the benefits of the Batista Regime (Moore, 2006: 26). Socialist Cubans tend to portray pre-revolutionary Cuba as the darkest times in the history of the country and nation while Cubans in exile and in diaspora showcase the grandeur and wealth of Cuba before the wealth was redistributed (Moore, 2006: 26–27). This pre-Castro era in the cultural history of Cuba showcased the continuous production of professional musicians due to the constant demand of performers by American tourists and businesses (Moore, 2006: 36). However, once these professionals were out of the country either by force or by choice, it was the untrained, unprofessional musicians which created the greatest impact in society (Moore, 2006: 36). Separate from the westernized versions of Cuban music, such songs stemmed from the folk songs of Cuba — which had influences from Africa, Spain, and indigenous cultures.

Once Castro took over, however, the Movement advocated for more austere forms of living, a more ‘moral’ society under the Castro regime (Moore, 2006: 57). The exodus of musicians from the country gave more space for traditional musicians to take the center stage of the Cuban music scene (Moore, 2006: 59). An artist which is the direct result of this would be Carlos Puebla which would feature heavily in the songs which will be analyzed in the course of this paper. Puebla was a folk musician which moved to Havana after the outcry following the coup of Batista in 1952, he became socially involved and his lyrics became politically charged with the outbreak of the revolution (Moore, 2006: 60). The following songs have been chosen for their relevance of the topic, it must be noted, however, that only the first verses of the songs are included in this paper. It should also be noted that it is not known when these songs were actually written, but rather only when they were recorded as the conditions of Cuba were not safe for the recording of songs during the revolution (Moore, 2006).

Hasta Siempre

Lo Eterno

Yutaka Nagata/UN Photo

The two songs given above are about the revolutionary figure of Che Guevara, the first of the two, was a response from Carlos Puebla to one of the messages broadcasted by Che Guevara from the Sierra Maestra. It is part of the Nueva Trova (New Ballad) genre of the Cubans and tells of the heroism and deeds of Che Guevara. The second song is a posthumous tribute for Guevara after his death in Bolivia which states that Che Guevara is eternal and can never die in the hearts and minds of the people. Without subverting the discussion later in this paper, the songs above are a prime example of how arts — music — is used to create a cult of personality surrounding a person which may be used to rally people around a cause.


Y en Eso Llego Fidel

Que Viva Fidel

Photo: Liborio Noval

The songs above about Fidel Castro were released almost immediately after the end of the revolution in 1959 meaning that the songs were probably written during the revolution and recorded only when conditions were safe enough for pro-revolutionary musicians. These songs recount the story of the revolution where Fidel Castro is seen as ending the old regime and instituting a new Cuba. Further, he is seen as a savior and almost a messianic figure leading the Cubans out of their current situation and into a better future for all Cubans.


Ramifications of the Music

Photo: Luis Resendiz

Following the research made by Moore (2006), the Cuban revolution brought about numerous changes to the cultural scene of Cuba, not merely in society and politics but in the arts, literature, and music as well. The following section details the changes brought about by the revolution as well as the effects of the music on the revolution itself and post-revolutionary Cuba.

Despite the difficulty of pinpointing exactly the influence of music in the course of the revolution and after it, some observations may be made on the effects of music and art on the society, culture, and politics of Cuba,

One of the clearest manifestations of the effect of art and music on Cuba would be the creation of a cult of personality surrounding Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. During the revolution itself, music played an integral role in the daily lives of the rural population as told by a recounting of the revolution by Jose Yglesias (1968) in a book entitled ‘In the Fist of the Revolution: Life in a Cuban Country Town.’ The people, according to the book, were aware of the revolution in the mountains, and, as revealed by lines of dialogue, Fidel and Che were looked up to as heroes and saviors of the Cuban nation (Yglesias, 1968). Such were rallying points, according to the book, wherein people could be mobilized to and for the revolution. Which songs the people of the rural areas listened to are uncertain, however, following the observations of Cuban society and culture made by Moore (2006), it can be inferred that these songs would be that of the folk genre propagated in the countrysides and not of the modern Cuban music found in the major cities in Cuba (Moore, 2006). As can be seen and heard from the songs given above, they follow the new genre which would emerge at the end of the revolution, that of the Nueva Trova.

Following the triumph of the revolution, the personality cult surrounding Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became more pronounced as the figures were no longer seen as subversive or illegal after the fall of the Batista Regime (Das, 2015: 5). The names were seen as equal to the revolution and their personalities have exemplified and represented the Cuban Revolution as a whole (Das, 2015: 5). Even in the early days of the Castro regime, the two were seen as the two most powerful men in the whole of Cuba (Casey, 2009: 49). Their influence remained unchallenged for the first half of the 60s but politics and geopolitics ensured that the two cults of personality would take different paths as time went on (Casey, 2009: 91). Regardless, the two cults persisted in the mind of the Cuban public.

Numerous factors tell of varying reasons for this split in both cults of personality and the personalities of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It can be argued that the internationalism of Che Guevara pushed him to continue the success of the Cuban Revolution elsewhere (Casey, 2009), or that arguments between Fidel and Che on Cuban-Soviet relations had torn the two comrades asunder (Casey, 2009: 91), or that the figure of Che was becoming too popular in the Cuban public for the liking of Fidel Castro (Harris, 2000). The split can be attributed to any single or a mix of these factors but nevertheless, the cults differed in the direction they took: personality politics of Castro and the making of a global brand of Guevara (Casey, 2009).

Following one argument from the book ‘Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission’ by Richard Harris (2000), the contesting views between Che and Fidel as well as the popularity of Che overtaking that of Fidel are factors in the stepping down of Che from the Cuban government and undertaking revolutionary efforts in Africa and other parts of Latin America. This appeal to Che stems from the notion that Che had not yet sacrificed his idea of an ideal Cuba and revolution by aligning oneself to the Soviets (Casey, 2009: 92) while Fidel was placed in an awkward position to rebuke his closest ally in an effort to remain in good terms with the Kremlin (Casey, 2009: 91–92). Despite this, however, Castro took steps to give the image that the regime was still entirely cohesive even when Guevara was sent out in what was essentially banishment from Cuba (Casey, 2009: 92–93).

Domestically, Castro used the image of Che to bolster his own image (Casey, 2009: 93–100). The leader, however, eventually institutionalized his personality cult into the machinations of the state through propaganda, state media, and music (Bream, 2005). This personality cult would persist well into the 21st century to the extent that his son, Raul Castro, legislated an act to ban the personality cult surrounding Fidel Castro.

Guevara, on the other hand, and his internationalism was catapulted into international recognition as a symbol of numerous things: socialism, communism, revolution, the ‘new man’, and the revolutionary (Casey, 2009). He was turned into a global icon — ironically, by capitalism — first by the country which had essentially banished him and second by the economic system he had fought so hard against.


Havana, Cuba | © Julian Peters Photography/Shutterstock

Synthesis:

The sections above have given a general look into the relationship between the music and politics of the Cuban nation-state albeit quite segmented and separate from each other. The framework has presented the way charisma, personality, and politics are able to mesh together and intertwine to create personality politics focused on a person or group of people. The sections on the history, the 1953 revolution, and the culture of Cuba have attempted to set the country in its proper historical, cultural, and sociological context so as to argue for the main argument of this paper. The argument of this paper, that music was a means to mobilize people to and for the revolution as well as set the scene for the personality cults of Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, may be seen in the songs given above. The argument is made manifest in the pieces discussed in the section on songs of the revolution wherein the personalities of Castro and Guevara are highlighted, exalted, and celebrated.

The songs, Hasta Siempre, Lo Eterno, Y en eso Llego Fidel, and Que Viva Fidel, are prime examples of the kinds of songs which were propagated during and after the 1953 Revolution. The genre, Nueva Trova or ‘New Ballad’, was made simpler and closer to the masses as these were the songs that were sung in the countrysides and rural areas as well as by the revolutionaries in the mountains. These songs, this paper argues, furthered the personality cult that was already brewing around the figures of Castro and Guevara. However, it is worth noting that the historical and sociocultural contexts of Cuba show that personality politics, as well as authoritarian regimes, are not new to the country since it has been under Spanish colonialism under a governor-general, a United States protectorate, under numerous dictatorships before arriving at the Castro Regime in 1959. The songs, however, represent a new era in Cuban history and culture as the folk songs from the rural areas were finally given center stage.

An effect of these songs, however, among many other different factors, would be the creation of contention between the cults of Castro and Guevara creating a rift between the two personalities of the Cuban revolution. While Castro honed the cults domestically, the internationalism of Guevara launched his figure to become a global brand.

In sum, the Cuban Revolution marks a moment in contemporary history where the Cold War was brought right to the doorstep of the United States of America. However, prior to the alignment of the nation-state to the Soviets, the Cuban revolution was a fight against the centuries-old plights which the Cuban people have suffered. The Cubans resisted against the U.S.-backed Batista regime through guerrilla warfare, the arts, and, as with what this paper has presented, through music; that, despite being heavily personalistic, the songs were able to mobilize a population as well as make them politically and socially conscious of their current state. The revolution brought forth a new era to all aspects of Cuban life, its society, its culture, not confined simply to politics.


Bibliography:

Bream, E. (2005). “Personalistic Political Leadership in Castro’s Cuba” Leadership Review 4. Kravis Leadership Institute.

Casey, M. (2009). Che’s Afterlife: Legacy of an Image. New York: Vintage Books.

Das, A. (2015). The Red Face of Latin America: How Socialism Thrives on a Personality Cult. India: National Law School of India University.

Harris, R. (2000). Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission. New York: Norton.

Heywood, A. (2013). Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Macgaffey, W. & Barnet, C. (1962). Cuba: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture. Connecticut: HRAF Press.

Moore, R.D. (2006). Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Richardson, J. (2013). “Cavite: Politics in a Time of Revolution” Light of Liberty: Documents and Studies on the Katipunan, 1892–1897. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press.

Shuker, R. (2016). Understanding Popular Music Culture. New York: Routledge.

Suchlicki, J. (1974). Cuba: From Columbus to Castro. New York: Scribner’s Publishing House.

Tarrow, S. (1998). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yglesias, J. (1968). In the Fist of the Revolution: Life in a Cuban Country Town. New York: Vintage Books.

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N. Mozart Diaz

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Oscillating between navigating and wandering;

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

N. Mozart Diaz

Written by

Oscillating between navigating and wandering;

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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