“Patria or Muerte” – In the 21st Century


It’s hard to miss the colossal words on the wall right in front of and very much in the view of the US Embassy.  ‘Patria or Muerte’ it reads, Patriotism or Death. A Symbol of a long fight against imperialism. What does 21st century Socialism mean in Cuba? What does ‘Patria or Muerte’ really mean today?

The popular trope, Cuba is ‘the land stuck in the past’ is a misjudgement altogether. It is a society radically progressive yet confined to live in the past.

To perhaps best contextualise what Cuba is, it is easiest to look at the experiences of the individual.

To start with, the first person to express discontent with Cuba was a 23-year-old boatman, afflicted with a classic case of ‘young man gripes’. Without a doubt, his job was difficult, and he wanted to drain every tourist that climbed into his boat. Away from the ears of the public servants, he claimed to be truly disappointed with the state of affairs in Cuba. His job was not an easy one. Having to drive a boat back and forth under the Cuban sun and humidity is remarkably unpleasant. He claims that Cubans live day by day. He complained about the price of fake Adidas in Cuba.  He was bored of eating rice, beans and chicken and wishes if he too had relatives in Florida to help him access something trendier and modern.

The state provides; health care, subsidised electricity, next to free rationed food and access to Cuban made goods and essentials.  Perhaps the narrative of capitalist over-consumption and exploitation was lost on him. Without substantial context, it wasn’t surprising.

While the boatman and many like him are not cut officially cut off from the rest of the world, there is a clear problem with accessibility.  To simplify, accessing the internet; isn’t cheap, can’t be done in your home, involves waiting in a long line or going to the public park, and once you do get it, It’s frustratingly slow.

The boatman, belonged to a generation of people born at the closing of the ‘special period’, after the fall of the Soviet Union and had grown up with the liberalisation.

His experiences were starkly contrasted with a man who had lived the beginning.

In his early 60s now, Carlos was looking forward to retiring in a few years. A worldly worker, his sentiments had the benefit of context. He as a black man understands the racism, bigotry and inequality that exists outside Cuba and within Cuba. Without a doubt, the wear and tear of physical work showed.  He accepted that life was hard in Cuba, but it was fair.

He told me he cried when Chavez died, and he will always, always be for Fidel. He claimed, the worker’s councils were democratic. Unlike the Boatman, his opinion of Cuba was a comparison of before the revolution and after the revolution. The area where he lived he claimed was rampant with drugs, prostitution, murders, assaults and most of all grotesque racism. He understood the limitation of change but also pointed out that the youth probably crave modernity.

The novelty of Cuba for an outsider lies largely in the command economy. The liberalisations seemed to benefit those working in tourism. An industry that seems to largely benefit urban professionals who have conveniently located homes, English skills or anyone with a car.  A tourist can buy cheaper things on the market, eat at private restaurants and if you are on a budget stay in private homes, known as ‘casa particular’ with signs hanging on the door- ‘Dios Bendiga este Hogar’- God bless this house.

Cuba workers day

Hospitality workers were the easiest to observe for an outsider. State restaurants seemed to be packed all the time and the state run ice cream chain ‘Coppelia’ had hour long lines in all major cities. The state restaurants were beset with staff that could not care less and would leave you waiting at a table for hours. Now, having worked in the industry myself, it was empowering to watch workers caring very little about what, ‘the customer’ thought of them. It was a refreshing change, having accustomed to the anti-worker messages of consumerism such as; ‘the customer is always right’ be turned upside down. While an inconsequential occurrence in hospitality, the attitude of not caring is famously destructive in other industries such as primary production.

A Chinese traveller pointed out; this was the first time she felt the quote “women hold up half the sky” was a philosophy underlying the country.  Compared to the rest of the region Cuba was miles ahead in its treatment of black people, women and children. Without a market force, women and the traditionally oppressed are undoubtedly less likely to be exploited.  The work done at home, often by women, is constitutionally recognised. Marriage doesn’t carry the same value and being unmarried doesn’t carry the same stigma.

It has publishing houses for women, a 50/ 50 parliament and legal-safe-free abortions. Everyone gets a guaranteed education and child workers are non-existent. Pleasantly enough, you are most likely to get a stern ‘NO’ from locals if you dared question, whether racism exists in Cuba?

While not obvious at first glance, the regressive social norms are evident where a market orientated model subsists. The taxi industry is almost entirely male dominated, and it seems prostitution whilst undoubtedly, not as prominent nor visible as in other countries in the region; seems dominated by women and comes with uncomfortable racial elements tied into it; where darker women are marketed at a lower price. Much of the black market seems to be the man’s place, inevitably adding to the income of men over women.

Further evidenced by unpaid labour in the home. Myself, having temporarily lived in Cuban houses, noticed women seem to be the head of the household. Whilst, men, do engage in household tasks, women complete the lion share of housework.

The reality of the Cuban youth was best made evident to me was a young medical student.  A pleasant, hospitable 20-year-old. Unlike the boatman, he was expressly patriotic. I met him on the common plaza, where everyone gathered most nights, singing a song about none other than, Commandante, Che Guevara himself. He understood the potential of a medical degree in the west. He didn’t dislike his country, but wanderlust and capitalists decadence had made a beckoning call through his avid interest in popular culture of the west and the east.

The medicine student raised the obvious question, how do you convince the youth to stay in Cuba and make it better? What does Patria or Muerte mean to the youth?

–  Ama –