It was a day when Cubans were called to speak with one voice to demand the return of intelligence agents serving long prison terms in the US.
Then, at a nationally televised event outside the US diplomatic mission in Havana, a prominent musician sang not only about the so-called Cuban Five, but also his wish for more freedom of information and direct presidential elections.
Artists, writers and musicians have long enjoyed a certain amount of room to speak critically about the country’s communist system. However, Robertico Carcasses’ unusually bold lyrics at the pro-government concert were the talk of the town on Friday.
Carcasses, the 41-year-old leader of Cuban jazz-fusion combo Interactivo, sang about his desire for “free access to information so I can have my own opinion.”
“I want to elect the president by direct vote and not some other way,” he said. “Neither militants nor dissidents, [we are] all Cubans with the same rights.”
“And an end to the blockade,” he added, referring to Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo against Cuba, “and to self-blockade.”
Then, Carcasses gestured at the US Interests Section behind the stage and said: “Free the Five Heroes.”
“When I heard the first line, I thought: ‘Did I hear that right?’” said Diego Ferran, a 68-year-old retiree who watched the show on TV.
“I was surprised that that was being shown on television... I was very pleased that he would do that and in that place right in front of the Interests Section,” Ferran said. “He’s very right in everything he said.”
Carcasses’ lyrics alluded to authorities’ control over many aspects of society. The state and the Cuban Communist Party operate nearly all island media, and Internet access rates are very low.
The party is the only one allowed in Cuba, although membership is not a requirement to run in elections. The president is selected not by direct popular vote, but by parliament, which in turn is elected on a ballot with just one approved candidate for each seat. Cuba defends its system as more participatory and democratic than most others.
Other prominent musicians have also tested the boundaries of acceptable speech.
Legendary crooner Pablo Milanes has given interviews in which he criticized counterprotests that are quietly encouraged and target anti-government groups such as the Ladies in White.
Singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez has said that dissidents’ freedom of expression should be respected, even if their opinions are not shared.
Groups such as rappers Los Aldeanos pull no punches in criticizing the government, but unlike Carcasses, they are outside the music establishment and do not appear at official venues.
In 2008, punk rocker Gorki Aguila, known for raunchy lyrics targeting former Cuban president Fidel Castro, was convicted of public disorder and fined, although prosecutors dropped a “social dangerousness” charge that could have resulted in a long prison sentence.
Carcasses’ lyrics were perhaps most remarkable for where they were delivered. The concert was the crowning event of a government-sponsored yellow-ribbon campaign to raise awareness about the Cuban Five, who were convicted in 2001 of spying on US military installations and exile groups.
Cuba maintains that they were only monitoring violent exile groups to prevent terror attacks.
Fans packed the so-called Anti-Imperialist Plaza on Thursday night to hear more than a dozen performers. As the show drew to a close, Carcasses rose from the piano and sang about what was on his mind.
“It was right at the end of the concert. Everyone was singing and dancing, and I think not everybody realized what he was saying. I think that’s why more people weren’t shouting when he said it,” office worker Maite Delgado, 49, said.
Others were not so amused.
“Unfortunate and opportunistic as well as disrespectful performance by Robertico [Carcasses],” US-based journalist Edmundo Garcia said via Twitter. “But one swallow does not a summer make.”