Musical Passions: Cuba’s Cultural Ambassadors

When Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez played to a sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall in New York in June, opposing groups of demonstrators faced off outside the auditorium creating a battle of dueling imagery that continued throughout the concert. As on so many other occasions, the cultural world served as proxy for broader political tensions over Cuba. To some extent this should come as no surprise: Cuban writers, artists, and musicians wield a disproportionately powerful role in public discourse, and Cuban musicians tend to make their most controversial statements when they tour abroad.

Michelle Chase

When Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez played to a sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall in New York in June, concert-goers may have been surprised with the scene that greeted them when they arrived. Opposing groups of demonstrators faced off outside the auditorium. Some held aloft photos of the recently deceased Cuban hunger striker Orlando Zapata, a dissident who had been in prison since 2003. Others wore t-shirts dedicated to the wives of the Cuban Five (“Wives Without Rights”), to protest the incarceration of five Cuban agents who had infiltrated Cuban exile groups in Miami. The dueling imagery continued throughout the concert. Inside the auditorium, as the crowd belted out song lyrics and chanted “viva Cuba,” a contingent from the Cuban cultural center Casa de las Americas unfurled a banner bearing the insignia of the 26 of July, the original name of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement. Meanwhile, outside, the ghostly image of Orlando Zapata illuminated Carnegie Hall’s exterior, projected by émigré artist Geandy Pavón.

As on so many other occasions, the cultural world served as proxy for broader political tensions over Cuba. To some extent this should come as no surprise: Cuban writers, artists, and musicians wield a disproportionately powerful role in public discourse, as commonly happens in a context of restricted media and limited institutional channels for dissenting views. Cuban musicians tend to make their most controversial statements when they tour abroad, as they are thrust into the public eye when interviewed by foreign media, and feel less restricted in what they can say in public.

But recently, some of the island’s most famous singers have extended their traditional roles as cultural ambassadors. In December, rock musician Carlos Varela, known for pensive lyrics that captured the mood of Cuba’s post-Soviet Special Period of austerity, took the unprecedented step of performing for members of the U.S. Congress and meeting with lawmakers and foreign policy strategists in Washington. He pleaded for more cultural exchange between the two countries and made careful statements both against the U.S. embargo, which has been in effect for a half-century, and also against the police harassment of dissidents within Cuba.

Singer Pablo Milanés, while on tour in Spain in the winter and spring, made statements that went far beyond his traditionally critical support for the revolution. In interviews with the Spanish press, he referred to Cuban socialism as “stagnant,” and asserted that the formerly revolutionary ideas of the historic leadership had turned “reactionary,” and demanded immediate and deep political reforms. His strong criticisms may have prompted an unusual political cartoon published in Granma in March, which shows a singer proclaiming, “I used to sing for the poor of the earth.” A second text bubble adds, “That was before he earned a lot of money with his protest songs.” The cartoon was interpreted as a warning to Milanés, or perhaps other musicians, that they are not untouchable.

Silvio Rodríguez himself engaged in an unanticipated dialogue with the well-known anti-Castro activist Carlos Alberto Montaner in a series of public letters exchanged in April. The Cuban government has long denounced Montaner as a CIA agent and saboteur, so the exchange took many Cuba observers by surprise. Topics ranged from interpretations of Cuban history to disagreements over the country’s future, with the singer rebutting Montaner point for point. Yet Rodríguez’s engagement also seemed to implicitly acknowledge Montaner as a legitimate adversary.

Why has the cultural domain lately become such an intense battlefield? Several trends have likely coincided to produce what is shaping up to be a particularly contentious concert season. The Obama administration has finally eased restrictions on visas for Cuban musicians, resulting in a flood of blockbuster shows, including many artists who have not played in the United States for a decade or more. But the musical watershed has also coincided with complex trends within Cuba.

The death of Orlando Zapata in February after a prolonged hunger strike in prison galvanized Cuba’s small but entrenched internal opposition and outraged many Cubans in exile. It gave internal dissidents the moral high ground, placed the Cuban government on the defensive, and intensified scrutiny from international human rights groups. This spring has also witnessed increasing conflict between the government and the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco)—a group of mothers and wives of political prisoners who periodically hold small marches in Havana—after police forcibly dispersed a march in April. This has prompted the emergence of the Catholic Church as a new interlocutor between the state and dissidents. Finally, Cuba has received renewed attention and criticism from Spain, which prompted the Cuban government to call for a concert in “defense of Cuba” in April, at which Rodríguez and other musicians performed, with noticeably lagging interest among youth.

If most island Cubans know little about the struggles of internal dissidents—which have far greater impact abroad—they are nevertheless susceptible to the government retrenchment the conflict with the internal opposition provokes. Internal Cuban politics are characterized by pendulum swings of periods of relative openness followed by periods of relative intolerance and closure. By many accounts, the last six months have witnessed an increasingly restrictive atmosphere in workplaces and around scholarly and cultural institutions, resulting in tighter supervision and control. While the recent musical exchanges with the United States are almost unanimously viewed as welcome, they are also taking place in a period of heightened political tension and economic difficulty.

Still, why does Rodríguez in particular seem to spark such passion and controversy? His U.S. tour, his first in 30 years, has been a sensation. His concerts have packed theaters across the country and have been covered in all the major national media outlets. His statements at a recent CD release party in Havana and at press conferences in the United States have generated intense buzz, particularly his assertions that Cuba needs “a revision of many things, many concepts, even institutions,” and that “the majority” of political prisoners should be freed. His commentary has generated sympathy and praise from admirers and scathing attacks from detractors.

An explanation may lie in the fact that Rodríguez seems to symbolize struggles over the meaning of the Latin American New Left itself. If he is a particularly contentious figure, it reflects his stature as the poster child of Nueva Trova, the revitalized folk music that produced the anthems of the Latin American New Left. His rise in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with the rise of political conflict and state repression in the region, especially the Southern Cone, and for many Latin Americans he is remembered as a moving voice of resistance to dictatorship.

Yet his image has a rather different resonance in contemporary Cuba. In the late 1960s, Rodríguez was viewed as a critic of state bureaucracy. He embodied a generational sensibility of contestation and protest in the heated atmosphere of Cuba in 1968 and beyond. Yet after an early history of friction between the revolutionary government and trovadores, Nueva Trova evolved from socially conscious protest music to an officially sanctioned revolutionary soundtrack. Rodríguez himself has since then remained a firm supporter of the revolutionary government, albeit with criticisms. As he said during his recent CD release party, “I have many more reasons to believe in the revolution than in its detractors.” If his trajectory is viewed by many young Cubans as one of increasing accommodation with the leadership, the intense attention he still garners nevertheless reflects his continuing importance as a cultural icon.


Michelle Chase is a NACLA Research Associate.

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