Released on: Know Your Enemy (Album #6) Epic Records, 19 March 2001
As one of the most explicitly political songs of the middle-period Manics discography and the song most connected and associated with the band’s controversial 2001 performance in Havana, ‘Baby Elián’ has come in for a lot of criticism over the years. There is certainly a degree of naivety in Wire’s treatise on Cuban-American relations, in that he “fails” to address the fact that Cuba is a clearly less-than-perfect society. However, it’s important to remember firstly that his sustained attack on the US’ meddling in Cuban affairs is broadly proportionate, and secondly that ‘Baby Elián’ is a song – to get a real understanding of the situation people ought to do some reading on the subject. As with so many Manics recordings, the Picasso line “art is the lie that helps us understand the truth” comes to mind.
In any case, ‘Baby Elián’ is a very well constructed song with so excellent a chorus that in another world it might just have made it as one of Know Your Enemy‘s singles. The simple but oddly thrilling guitar riff and Bradfield’s vocals add a real sense of grandeur to the proceedings, which makes sense given the scale of the message the band are trying to convey. Also adding to the case for singledom is the (for KYE) unusually polished production, which has not really been heard on the album since [T130] ‘The Year of Purification’.
If people want to object to ‘Baby Elián’ due to its political inclinations that is their own business, but it does seem a little odd to do so when for so long, politically firebrand lyrics were the Manics stock-in-trade and one of the things which secured them a cult following. It does beg the question, though – by 2001, and given the band’s major commercial success with a relatively apolitical album, were the band’s audience becoming used to a less political version of the band?
Regardless of these questions the song is a pleasingly accessible, populist, and brief excursion on the potentially heavy-going second half of KYE which helps make it a more balanced album. It’s also an interesting fusion between some of the most politically engaged lyrics of its period with some of the most glossy and commercial production of its period. It wouldn’t have gone over well in the US, but then the Manics had long since given up on breaking that market, right?
Choice Lyric (Full Lyrics)
“maybe a future in film / but Cuban boxers still win”
Blockades – a reference to the American embargo of Cuba, which has been in place since 1960 under the “Cuban Democracy Act”. In Cuba, although the word embargo exists in Spanish the term “el bloquero” (“the blockade”) is used to describe this situation.
Cuban Adjustment Act – a United States act which makes it easier for Cubans to become a permanent resident of the US (easier than for residents of other nearby nations, for example Haiti) which could be interpreted as being designed to incentivise Cubans to leave their country.
The Bay of Pigs – an inlet on Cuba’s southern coast which was the site of a failed, CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in April 1961.
Baby Elián – Elián Gonzalez was a six year old boy when he became the centre of a complex and much-publicised international custody case in 2000. He was one of a few survivors of an attempt to reach Miami from Cuba by boat, and was eventually returned to his father in Cuba.
Operation Peter Pan – a CIA scheme between 1960 and 1962 during which Cuban parents gave up their children for adoption in Miami because they had been duped by propaganda into thinking the Cuban government were about to send them to the Soviet Union.
Not even Miami mob – a reference to the fact that the American Mafia were involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and were offered large sums of money to assassinate Fidel Castro (the Mafia were opposed to the Cuban Revolution because the communists shut down the brothels and casinos from which the Mafia had long profited there).