Socially Dangerous: Misrepresenting Cuba’s Punk Rock Trial

February 25, 2009

In August the Cuban authorities briefly detained a musician, Gorki Águila, 40, and charged him with “social dangerousness,” a crime punishable with up to four years’ imprisonment. Gorki, as he is widely known, is the lead singer and figurehead of Porno Para Ricardo, a punk rock band that has, since its formation in 1998, made increasingly direct and vulgar pronouncements against the Cuban leadership. (The band’s lyrics radicalized considerably after Gorki’s first imprisonment in 2003 after a conviction on drug charges.1) The band’s logo features the hammer and sickle, with the hammer in the form of a phallus, and their song lyrics lambaste the leadership as inept, decrepit, and repressive. Arrested presumably for his critical lyrics, Gorki was ultimately convicted of “public disorder” (for the band’s noisy rehearsals) and released with a fine.

The incident briefly captivated the mainstream U.S. media, perhaps because it seemed to reinforce several well-established themes in its coverage of Cuba: an imminent youth rebellion, an imagined future “transition to democracy,” and the Cuban government’s suppression of free speech. These themes are not, of course, irrelevant, but their consistent emphasis to the exclusion of other topics can create misleading impressions about contemporary Cuba—exaggerating, for example, the importance and reach of dissidents on the island, or portraying the relationship of youths to socialism as purely antagonistic.2 More broadly, they reveal the mass media’s consistent prioritization of freedom over justice in Latin America.

For the media, the Gorki incident represented one more episode of political repression on the island, and more particularly a test case by which new president Raúl Castro delineated the limits of permissible critique under his watch.3 As The Miami Herald wrote, “Aguila’s arrest sends a clear signal that while Raul Castro is open to public debate, he will set boundaries.” The St. Petersburg Times concurred, remarking that Gorki’s detention “raised questions about the limits on freedoms in Cuba under the new government of Raul Castro, despite greater internal debate and economic reforms.”4

The dominance of free speech and political dissidence in mainstream media coverage of the island has several troubling repercussions. First, foreign journalists’ frequent reliance on a very small group of internal dissidents for quotes gives these dissidents disproportionate weight as sources of information and international opinion-makers. For example, Elizardo Sánchez, head of an unauthorized human rights group, and Yoani Sánchez, author of the blog Generación Y, are quoted repeatedly in coverage of the Gorki case and elsewhere. Similarly, the ample coverage of opposition groups like Damas de Blanco, which is virtually unknown to most Cubans, gives an overdrawn sense of their local importance.5 Such coverage is, implicitly, more about U.S. foreign policy than Cuba’s internal politics; it necessarily contains a subtext asking which of these dissident groups will lead Cuba in a “transition to democracy.”

Second, the media focus on the harassment and detention of dissidents also lends itself to an exaggerated, sensationalistic assessment of how prevalent the use of force is in Cuba. For example, one Wall Street Journal columnist wrote that “the regime has long counted on fear as the principal tool to keep the proletariat in line.”6 Yet force is not the Cuban government’s preferred form of curbing critical lyrics. It more often employs subtler, less direct ways of restricting a particularly critical musician’s accessibility, by not allowing the artist to record on state-run music labels, for example, or by refraining from promoting the artist on local radio or television stations. (The limited internal diffusion of nueva trova artist Pedro Luis Ferrer is an example.)

Such restrictions are usually combined with various forms of encouragement for musicians who are either less critical, or whose criticism is less direct. For example, the government has promoted a series of rap and alternative rock concerts through a venue known as La Madriguera, run by its youth arts organization, Asociación Hermanos Saíz. In 2007 it founded the Cuban Rock Agency, and it plans to open a revamped movie theater as a venue for alternative rock music. To focus merely on repression, or to dismiss examples of negotiation as simple “co-optation” of musicians, is to deeply misconstrue the complex relations between artists and the state in socialist Cuba.7

Finally, in its most dogmatic iteration, the focus on free speech in Cuba permits a heavy-handed contrast with the freedoms enjoyed in the United States. For example, one editorialist for The Tampa Tribune urged readers to consider Gorki’s case “for a better appreciation of American freedoms,” asserting the dubious claim that “even Americans who disagree on the issues would fight to the death for their opponent’s right to say what he thinks.”8 In the particular context of Gorki’s trial, such statements are ironic, given that Porno Para Ricardo’s lyrics and iconography raise precisely the issues—pornography, obscenity, sedition—that have also defined the limits of free speech in the United States. Such comments merely contribute to the flattened portrait of Cuba that often emerges in U.S. journalism, without illuminating the complexities of political critique on the island.

In practice, a spectrum exists within Cuba, ranging from acceptable to unacceptable statements, judged both in terms of their content and the context of their expression. For example, Porno Para Ricardo’s aggressive, irreverent denunciation of the leadership contrasts with the more ambiguous criticism, expressed somberly and often through metaphor, tolerated in many nueva trova songs, or the funny, streetwise commentaries on daily life found in many timba lyrics. Furthermore, there are differences between what can be expressed in a durable format like recordings or printed interviews, versus the more ephemeral platform of a live performance. Finally, more established artists with wide recognition have much greater leeway in their public pronouncements. For example, both Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, luminaries of nueva trova, criticized aspects of Cuban government policy, including restrictions on foreign travel and limitations on the press, when interviewed during their respective European tours last summer; they also carefully reiterated their support for the revolution. For this reason, Gorki supporters petitioned Milanés to denounce Gorki’s imprisonment during an outdoor concert in Cuba held just after Gorki’s arrest (Milanés did not respond).9

Certainly many Cubans would like to broaden the spectrum of acceptable public expression, but it is important for U.S. readers to understand that Porno Para Ricardo’s lyrics are generally considered quite deviant in the Cuban context. Moreover, the band’s oppositional stance is complicated by the fact that Gorki’s pronouncements dovetail—at least in some aspects—with the rhetoric of the Miami right. For example, in interviews with the foreign media, Gorki has suggested that the Cuban government has purposefully caused food shortages and described the leadership as motivated by a desire to “humiliate” the people. Such statements are rarely heard on the island, despite the proliferation of other types of complaints and allegations, yet they are daily fare in Miami.

Although the band has no formal political affiliation and states that it has never accepted funds from abroad, the possibility of such a relationship is latent, as suggested by the Cuban American National Foundation’s immediate offer to provide legal assistance to Gorki. This is why a relatively unknown local garage band raises the hackles of the Cuban government: the inevitable possibility it presents of an articulation with the U.S.-backed Miami hardliners. In any case, the dropping of the social-dangerousness charge was generally interpreted in the media as a victory for Cubans in exile, particularly young intellectuals and artists residing in Spain, who widely mobilized for Gorki’s release. (The charge—described by one journalist as “Orwellian”—is not the child of the 1959 revolution, as some commentators have implied. It was first outlined in the Social Defense Code of 1936 and retained in post-1959 criminal law, albeit after internal debate.)10

There is, in fact, a certain irony to Gorki’s brief celebration as an anti-regime figure among Miami exiles, and one suspects he veers too much toward anarcho-libertarianism for an easy embrace across the straits. As he has stated in an interview, “Capitalism is very problematic, as are Communism and socialism. . . . [F]or me, defending my anti-Castro ideas doesn’t mean an implicit defense of capitalism.”11 Porno Para Ricardo clamor for the personal, individual liberties: The band’s name refers to the restriction of pornography on the island, and Gorki sometimes wears a bright orange T-shirt that reads, “Pornography: A People’s Right.” Perhaps even more revealingly, Gorki appears in another video wearing a T-shirt that simply reads, “No!” That one-word manifesto, encapsulating the refusal to participate and the rejection of authority, might be considered subversive anywhere. But it is particularly disquieting under socialism.

Michelle Chase is a doctoral candidate in the history department of New York University. She is writing a dissertation on the gender politics of the Cuban Revolution.

1. Frances Robles, “Cuba to Try Anti-Castro Punk Rocker Gorki Aguila,” The Miami Herald, August 30, 2008.

2. Ana Menendez, “Change Is Already in the Hands of Youth,” The Miami Herald, March 2, 2008. See also Michelle Chase, “Cuba’s Generation Gap,” NACLA Report on the Americas 41, no. 6 (November/December 2008).

3. David Adams, “Cuban Rocker’s Case Seen as Test of Free Speech,” St. Petersburg Times, August 30, 2008; Marc Lacey, “From the Cuban Underground, a Punk Rocker’s Protest Reverberates,” The New York Times, September 6, 2008.

4. Robles, “Cuba to Try Anti-Castro Punk Rocker Gorki Aguila”; Adams, “Cuban Rocker’s Case Seen as Test of Free Speech.”

5. Cuba’s small opposition groups remain a seductive subject for foreign journalists, even for those who make it clear that these groups lack big followings. See, for example, Patrick Symmes, “The Battle of Ideas: Searching for the Opposition in Post-Fidel Cuba,” Harper’s Magazine, May 2008.

6. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “The Meaning of Raul’s ‘Reforms,’ ” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2008.

7. On the complex relationship between musicians and the state, see Sujatha Fernandes, Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, 2006) and Robin Moore, Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba (University of California Press, 2006).

8. “Cuban Punk Rocker’s Bum Rap,” September 5, 2008.

9. See Diego M. Vidal, “ ‘Creo que nuestras deficiencias noticiosas debieran ser parte de las mejoras inmediatas’: entrevista al cantautor Silvio Rodríguez,”, August 13, 2008.

10. See Debra Evenson, Revolution in the Balance: Law and Society in Contemporary Cuba (Westview Press, 1994), 156–58. For the reference to the law as “Orwellian,” see David Gonzalez, “A Cuban Rocker Faces Trial for ‘Social Dangerousness,’ ” posted on the New York Times City Room blog, August 29, 2008.

11. Jorge Ricardo, “Entrevista: Gorki Luis Águila: detiene Cuba a punk crítico del régimen,” Reforma (Mexico City), August 27, 2008.


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