Analysis

Cuba’s Music Industry Is Having a #MeToo Moment

Alleged assaults by musicians have sparked a larger conversation on gender violence in the country.

Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso
Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso
Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso is interviewed in Havana on June 28, 2019. She accused flutist and bandleader José Luis Cortés of repeatedly hitting and raping her during her time as vocalist for NG La Banda, one of the best-known Cuban bands of the past three decades. Ismael Francisco/AP
By , a freelance writer and Cuba scholar.

On April 18, one of Cuba’s most prominent musicians, José Luis Cortés, died suddenly at the age of 70 after suffering a stroke. Known by his nickname, “El Tosco” (“the rough guy”), Cortés founded the dance band NG La Banda, one of the pioneers of the Cuban salsa style called timba, the most popular genre on the island from the late 1980s to the mid-aughts.

But Cortés was also known for his machismo, both in his music and life. In 2019, Dianelys Alfonso, known as “La Diosa” (“the goddess”)—a singer with NG La Banda from 2003 to 2009—said that Cortés had repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten her during the course of their romantic relationship. In a subsequent interview, she expressed fear of retaliation by Cortés, saying he sent her a threatening text warning there would be “consequences” after she went public. She also described him as physically abusive with his ex-wife and another woman in the band. Upon news of his death in April, Alfonso wrote on Instagram that every word she’d said about Cortés was true—and that he wouldn’t be hitting anyone anymore.

Alfonso’s 2019 allegations are considered the beginning of an organized #MeToo movement in Cuba, which was popularized with the hashtag #YoSíTeCreo (“I do believe you”). A corresponding platform with the same name was subsequently founded by an anonymous group of Cuban feminists as the “first Cuban platform to support people in situations of sexist violence.” Members of the group spoke as one, via email, saying that using their names would put the women they serve at risk and that they feared the possibility of retaliation from the Cuban government.

Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso
Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso

Cuban singer Dianelys Alfonso is interviewed in Havana on June 28, 2019. She accused flutist and bandleader José Luis Cortés of repeatedly hitting and raping her during her time as vocalist for NG La Banda, one of the best-known Cuban bands of the past three decades. Ismael Francisco/AP

On April 18, one of Cuba’s most prominent musicians, José Luis Cortés, died suddenly at the age of 70 after suffering a stroke. Known by his nickname, “El Tosco” (“the rough guy”), Cortés founded the dance band NG La Banda, one of the pioneers of the Cuban salsa style called timba, the most popular genre on the island from the late 1980s to the mid-aughts.

But Cortés was also known for his machismo, both in his music and life. In 2019, Dianelys Alfonso, known as “La Diosa” (“the goddess”)—a singer with NG La Banda from 2003 to 2009—said that Cortés had repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten her during the course of their romantic relationship. In a subsequent interview, she expressed fear of retaliation by Cortés, saying he sent her a threatening text warning there would be “consequences” after she went public. She also described him as physically abusive with his ex-wife and another woman in the band. Upon news of his death in April, Alfonso wrote on Instagram that every word she’d said about Cortés was true—and that he wouldn’t be hitting anyone anymore.

Alfonso’s 2019 allegations are considered the beginning of an organized #MeToo movement in Cuba, which was popularized with the hashtag #YoSíTeCreo (“I do believe you”). A corresponding platform with the same name was subsequently founded by an anonymous group of Cuban feminists as the “first Cuban platform to support people in situations of sexist violence.” Members of the group spoke as one, via email, saying that using their names would put the women they serve at risk and that they feared the possibility of retaliation from the Cuban government.

Little has changed in the male-dominated, state-run Cuban music industry since 2019. Now, a much larger case of alleged sexual assault involving dozens of victims has underscored the urgency of not only the #YoSíTeCreo movement but also the larger fight against gender-based violence in Cuba.

Last December, several women publicly accused singer-songwriter Fernando Bécquer of sexual assault or attempted assault. Bécquer is not a household name, nor does he have anywhere near the level of influence that Cortés had. But the scope of this case is much bigger, and the tally of accusers now stands at roughly 30 women, according to the independent Cuban media outlet El Estornudo, which published the accounts of 16 women in March. These testimonies span over two decades, from 1999 to 2021, and three of them are by women who were minors at the time of their alleged encounters with Bécquer. Mario Luis Reyes, the El Estornudo journalist who has been covering the case, has said that after the first piece was published in December, he received “an avalanche” of messages from other women saying they were victims of Bécquer; among them were at least five who had been minors at the time of their alleged assaults.

The accounts depict a clear pattern of grooming. Virtually all the women who shared their stories said they expressed interest in the Yoruba-derived religion Santería before their encounters with Bécquer, who claimed to be a high priest of the religion. He would then suggest a religious cleansing that involved sexual acts to solve their problems, they said. (It should be noted that no actual Santería ceremonies involve sexual activity.) In December, Bécquer denied the initial allegations made against him, saying, “I give it no credibility. I don’t know what they’re talking about … they are slandering me. I’m not going to respond.”

In April, #YoSíTeCreo published a denunciation of Bécquer on Facebook, originally signed by seven of his accusers, and later signed by three more in addition to hundreds of supporters. “If the institutions that should publicly condemn your actions won’t do it, we will seek repair via social condemnation, while continuing to seek legal justice,” it declared.

While some state institutions have made vague declarations denouncing violence against women since the allegations surfaced, very few have mentioned Bécquer. Only one, the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center, a Havana-based institution dedicated to rescuing and promoting oral history and collective memory, has released a statement explicitly supporting the women who accused him. A few high-profile musicians have come to his defense, and Bécquer clearly felt emboldened enough by their support after Cortés’s death to address the #YoSíTeCreo activists on Facebook, telling them to “find a husband or wife you like and respect the memory of the maestro José Luis Cortés (El Tosco).”

A woman crosses a street as a young man on a bicycle stares at her
A woman crosses a street as a young man on a bicycle stares at her

A woman crosses a street as a young man on a bicycle stares at her in Havana on Dec. 9, 2019. Ismael Francisco/AP

Havana-based activist Marta María Ramírez, who has been advocating for survivors of gender violence since 1995, estimates that only seven women have made police reports against Bécquer—less than a quarter of the women who have made anonymous allegations. Although the police have launched an investigation into Bécquer, Ramírez said, “There is so little transparency around the whole process [of reporting sexual assault] that we don’t even know the number of formal accusations.”

While many of Bécquer’s accusers fear possible retaliation from him, Ramírez said some simply don’t believe in the ability of institutional structures to obtain true justice. #YoSíTeCreo said this case reveals that current legislation, which doesn’t treat gender violence as a specific form of violence stemming from misogyny, “is extremely flimsy because it’s so out of date.”

In recent months, Bécquer has attacked his accusers’ support networks, like #YoSíTeCreo, and Ramírez herself, on social media. Last month, he called Ramírez “similar to COVID, related to omicron, and worse than HIV, bad like measles, weak like mumps, a sad mercenary … Feminist feminazi” in a Facebook post. Ramírez and others reported it to Cuba’s Office of Information Security Affairs, but it archived the complaint, saying the U.S. embargo prohibited it from accessing Facebook’s servers. Though Cuba’s minister of culture has said that Bécquer is not actively performing during the police investigation, Ramírez said he has continued to show up at public performances—at the same venues where he met most of the women he later allegedly assaulted.

Ramírez argued that “the authorities, with their silence and complicity and bad management of the situation,” are the reason movements like #MeToo and #YoSíTeCreo are necessary to give women a platform to publicly warn others about abusive men. But most media outlets are still not covering Bécquer’s case specifically. The day after the first story about Bécquer was published, a government document called the “Comprehensive Strategy for Preventing and Addressing Gender and Domestic Violence” was released in a state-run newspaper. A few days later, the national nightly news included a segment calling for more attention to violence against girls—though only one official state-run publication mentioned Bécquer’s name.


An anti-harassment billboard in Cuba
An anti-harassment billboard in Cuba

A billboard reads in Spanish, “Evolve. Campaign against violence against women. Harassment sets you back,” in Havana on Dec. 9, 2019. After months of campaigning by women’s rights activists, including online campaigns denouncing the murders of at least four women, Cuba recognized that the country had gender-motivated killings.Ismael Francisco/AP

While visibility around gender violence has been growing in recent years, the fight to reform Cuba’s legal system has been much slower.

Cuban feminist activism against gender violence dates back to the 1990s, when the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the state organ tasked with overseeing women’s issues in Cuba, set up counseling centers in each province to support domestic violence victims. But research conducted by feminist scholar Ailynn Torres Santana has concluded that the FMC counseling centers’ reach is quite limited. Between 2015 and 2018, the center in the eastern Cuban city of Baracoa only assisted in 28 cases of intimate partner violence, even though during that same period there were 360 related police reports.

A rare national survey conducted by the Cuban government in 2016 revealed that over a quarter of Cuban women had been subject to intimate partner violence within the previous 12 months, and almost 40 percent had experienced that sort of violence at some point in their lives. Less than 4 percent of women who had experienced intimate partner violence had turned to the authorities. There is also evidence that the rate of domestic violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The #YoSíTeCreo movement emerged in the same year Cuban feminist activists petitioned Cuba’s National Assembly for a comprehensive law against gender violence, in November 2019. Following the model of other Latin American countries, such a law would guarantee that the Cuban Penal Code treat gender violence, including femicide, as a specific crime related to the historic and continued subjugation of women, including transgender women.

Because there is no established protocol for cases of gender violence in Cuba, #YoSíTeCreo explained, the police treat it as they would any other crime. The activists described the typical process that a domestic violence victim undergoes “within the obsolete, revictimizing Cuban justice system.” If a woman is injured by an intimate partner but injuries aren’t visible, police and medical professionals generally won’t allow her to issue a report. Sometimes police even propose a retraumatizing face-to-face “confrontation” with her alleged abuser. At best, the activists said, if the police do decide to issue a report they bring the accused into the station. After 24 hours of detention, he goes free with a fine.

Ramírez also highlighted that there is currently no way for people to make collective complaints or accusations against an alleged assailant. As in the case of Bécquer, if “there could be one file with all the testimonies, instead of each woman making separate accusations, a pattern could be established … it would make things a lot easier,” she said.

Authorities’ apathy toward gender violence extends to the most serious crime: femicide—which in many cases is preceded by intimate partner violence. Although the Cuban government officially recognized femicide as a distinct category of violence in 2019, lawmakers declined the aforementioned 2019 petition to codify it within the penal code and treat it differently from other homicides. Cuba and Haiti are the only countries in the Americas that lack laws criminalizing femicide as a specific crime. In 2021, the FMC announced it would be creating a “femicide observatory,” apparently a database of sorts, but it has yet to do so. In the meantime, #YoSíTeCreo has taken it upon itself to track the victims and details of femicides that have taken place in the past few years.

Torres Santana, the feminist scholar, who was among the 2019 petitioners, said the National Assembly declined to consider their petition because the lawmakers thought it wasn’t urgently needed. The Cuban Penal Code was updated as recently as May, and lawmakers again declined to codify femicide as a crime. What the new penal code does include, however, are chilling new laws punishing dissent: People, including independent journalists, who openly critique government officials could be imprisoned for up to five years. This provision is widely seen as a backlash against the large anti-government protests of last summer, but, as Ramírez pointed out, it also threatens her and others’ feminist activism—particularly if they were to make allegations about a government official.

Still, Torres Santana sees more diverse actors getting involved in feminist activism, particularly within Cuban civil society and among political dissidents. “In symbolic terms, we’re in a good place,” she said, “but there are still many barriers, especially in the political sector.”

And although they’re still pushing for a comprehensive law, both Torres Santana and Ramírez spoke about how distinct feminist notions of justice are from the traditional, punitive forms of criminal justice in Cuba and around the world. Many Latin American feminists are rejecting the punitive logic of the criminal justice system, said Torres Santana. Rather, they’re pursuing restorative justice, which focuses on repairing the harm done to the victim and the perpetrator taking responsibility, instead of simply locking up the perpetrator.

In fact, two of the women who accused Bécquer of assault appeared on Cuban filmmaker Ian Padrón’s YouTube program last December. One of them—Lilliana Balance—said her only objective was for enough people to know about Bécquer so that he couldn’t lure any more women into his home to assault them. She didn’t even mention jail time. All she asked of him was: “Tell the truth.”

#YoSíTeCreo sees the Bécquer allegations as a turning point: “It’s perhaps the first time the debate about sexual assault has been discussed on a large scale in Cuban society,” the group said. It has also seen a degree of empowerment among the survivors, who began speaking out in a fragmented form but have now formed a group to offer each other mutual support. Ramírez suggested this may have a domino effect—and that there may be new revelations coming soon regarding “other predators on the loose.”

“It’s very difficult to see the magnitude of the submerged iceberg,” she added, “but this is only the tip.”

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer, Cuba scholar, and author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba. Twitter: @rmbodenheimer

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