The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Cuba, art and politics have always been entwined

The complex tie between power and performance in Cuba

Singer Randy Malcom of Gente de Zona sings to protesters gathered last month in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami to show support for the people in Cuba who have taken to the streets there to protest. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Artists have played a vital role in the protests in Cuba that began on July 11. A group of artists formed the San Isidro Movement in 2018 and staged a hunger strike late last year to protest new restrictions on expression. In 2021, Cuban musicians abroad released the song “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), which repurposed the long-standing revolutionary slogan “Patria o muerte” (Homeland or death) and became an anthem for the protesters.

Although much is unprecedented in today’s protests, the connections between art and politics have antecedents. Cuban artists have long entered the political fray to speak to and about popular sentiments. While narratives about Cuban art often focus on whether individuals support or resist the government, there’s more to it than that. The history of dance in Cuba shows us how artists not only negotiated with the state, but also related to and drew inspiration from their co-workers, neighbors, lovers, family members, friends and imagined national community to express themselves.

In the decades before the 1959 Cuban Revolution brought the current regime to power, civic associations worked to make art forms like ballet a Cuban pastime and patrimony. They sponsored visiting dancers on tours and launched ballet classes for aspiring youths. Future star ballerina Alicia Alonso and her husband, dancer and teacher Fernando Alonso, had their start in these classes but launched their careers in New York in the early 1940s. They were among the founding members of the premier company Ballet Theatre (today, the American Ballet Theatre).

Fans argued that Alicia Alonso’s international stardom honored Cuba. They pushed the government to recognize her with an award and crowdfunded donations to buy her a diamond-encrusted cross to signal what she meant to the community. As a result, she returned to Cuba to connect and give back. In 1948, she founded the first professional Cuban ballet company with her husband and her brother-in-law, choreographer Alberto Alonso. Although the company mostly performed for middle- and upper-class audiences, at times it reached people like Jorge Lefebre, a lower-class, African-descended art student in the eastern city of Santiago, who found the Alonsos after a show and eventually secured a scholarship to their school.

A 1952 coup brought authoritarian leader Fulgencio Batista to power. Initially, the Alonsos saw the regime change as an opportunity. They met with Batista’s wife and cultural bureaucrats about increasing funding for Cuban ballet. But the government ended up cutting their subsidy, claiming that the limited budget could not accommodate a company that seemed more of a private than a public enterprise. Many vehemently disagreed with this assessment and budgetary action, so they began mobilizing. Dancers protested by publishing letters and performing in packed stadiums for supportive fans. With these large performances, artists and audiences collectively denounced a regime that attacked art.

After the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, new leaders envisioned an all-encompassing push for social change and perhaps learned a lesson or two from the deposed regime’s mistakes: Alienated artists had become vocal critics of the Batista government. The new government immediately recruited cultural producers to contribute to its unfolding political projects.

In partnership with ambitious and idealistic artists, the state founded a new film institute, literary magazines, theaters, orchestras and dance companies. Castro provided funding for the Alonsos’ company, which became the National Ballet of Cuba, cementing the art form as important to the country’s identity. Cuban artists’ long-standing desire to connect with audiences now had a new ideological spin, as the Revolution (and, eventually, socialism) became the structure for organizing political action.

Dancers reached diverse audiences, performing in factories, schools and farms around the country for people who had never attended a professional dance show in a theater. Dance leaders also used radio and television to spread the supposedly revolutionary gospel of art to all Cubans. The symbolism was irresistible. The idea was that in revolutionary Cuba, humble workers enjoyed the enlightening art of ballet, which historically only stuffy elites could access.

Dancers hoped that audiences would fall in love with dance, take advantage of cheap or free tickets to attend the theater and become lifelong, devoted patrons. After all, what dancer wants to perform for an empty house? But, while some viewers became ideal ballet fans, others bristled at or were bored with what became obligatory events. For instance, in the late 1960s, a group of military students threw paper and yelled epithets at dancers, and in the early 1980s, an Australian delegate to a women’s congress reported seeing Cubans falling asleep at a ballet performance on the official agenda.

Like audience members, dancers had diverse views about their cultural and political context. Some dancers aligned passionately with the socialist ethos. Other dancers were politically ambivalent but saw the Revolution as an opportunity to build dance institutions and audiences, not to mention their own careers and social and political capital. Opinions also changed with time both in and out of the dance world. As bureaucracy, racism and scarcity increasingly frustrated younger Cubans in the 1980s, dancers sought to reflect those popular sentiments.

For example, in the late 1980s, Cuban dancer and choreographer Caridad Martínez created a small, multimedia dance theater company that reflected on pressing issues. Company members had come of age in the decades after 1959, so they had little familiarity with Cubans’ collective struggles against Batista or for revolutionary utopias. By contrast, they were very familiar with daily struggles and sacrifices under the official exhortation of “Patria o muerte.”

Speaking to this younger generation, Martínez parodied power in “Eppure si muove,” Latin for “and yet it moves.” The goal was to examine religious and political authority. Performers danced in military jackets in front of the national religious icon, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre. Audiences flooded the theater and talked about the content after the shows, reflecting on how the performance dared to ask clever questions about authority figures on pedestals. The unconventional open-ended aesthetics allowed dancers and their audiences to reflect collectively on the paradoxes that riddled their reality in Cuba.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a major economic and political crisis, but connections between dancers and audiences persisted in the 1990s and 2000s. Dancers in national companies continued to perform; audiences continued to watch. Choreography about waiting (in lines for everything), hunger (for food and opportunity) and bicycles (in lieu of cars and buses that had no gasoline) connected dancers to their audiences as they shared in the pain of living in a floundering revolution relentlessly punished by the United States. Of course, just as before, some performances had and continue to have nothing to do with a beleaguered present. In such instances, dance can offer audience members an opportunity to escape, feel and contemplate.

This history reminds us that Cuban artists have long built their relationship with audiences even as they negotiate (sometimes fraught) partnerships with the state. As a result, Cuban artists have the capacity to compellingly represent the political zeitgeist of an era — whether revolutionary excitement or disaffection.

As current day protesters draw inspiration from the San Isidro Movement or reference the song “Patria y Vida” in their social media posts with the hashtag #PatriaYVida, they build on a robust legacy of artistic-civil engagement. While it is tempting to focus on the drama unfolding between protesters and the state, Cuban artists and audiences, then and now, demand we direct attention to the alliances that they have long nurtured. As the lyrics of “Patria y Vida” admit, “Llora mi pueblo y siento yo su voz” (“My people cry and I feel their voice”). Excavating those cries and feelings helps to explain how and why Cuban protesters connect with their artistic allies.