Ladies in White

Posted on Monday, 05.10.10
Silvio Rodriguez wonders if Cuba should 'evolve'
Associated Press Writers

HAVANA — Three decades after he last played New York, Cuban legend
Silvio Rodriguez is headed to Carnegie Hall, at a moment when he and
other celebrated island folk singers are raising unusually open
questions about their country's communist system.

Rodriguez, now 63, has been a sort of folk-song poet laureate of Fidel
Castro's revolution in recent years, performing at important official
events and even serving in Cuba's parliament for a time, though many
admire him most for his pogniant lyrics and haunting melodies.

Yet the June 4 concert in New York – which still hinges on U.S.
government approval of his visa – may show Americans a more complex Cuba
than many expect.

Rodriguez is still firmly on the side of the socialist system Castro
built, but his latest album suggests there need to be adjustments if it
is going to survive.

"Against disenchantment, offer hope," he sings on the album "Segunda
Cita," or "Second Date," which was released in March. "Overcome the 'r'
in revolution," the song goes – alluding to the uprising that swept
Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959, and to almost everything in Cuba
that has happened since.

"If we don't change, they are going to change us," Rodriguez wrote in
response to written questions from The Associated Press, "and that's not
what I want to happen to my country."

He added that, "I hope evolution takes us, as the angel in the song
says, right up to the crossroads where we made the wrong decision and we
rectify that."

It's light criticism by any measure – and Rodriguez has been coy when
asked to shed light on what he meant.

He also read a statement defending the Cuban government – but did not
sing – during a recent "Concert for the Homeland" in Havana. And he
plunged into an unusual, public debate with one of the Castro
government's fiercest critics, Carlos Alberto Montaner – that
nonetheless raised eyebrows in Cuba and abroad for the mere fact that
Rodriguez would reply to the . Cuba's official media describes
Montaner as a CIA agent.

Rodriguez has sometimes broached thorny subjects uncomfortable for the
government, but songs like " Giron," a denunciation of the U.S. Bay
of Pigs invasion, have become anthems of the revolution and even his
small jabs at its single-party communist system come as a surprise.

Stronger dissent has come from other leading members of Cuba's Nueva
Trova movement in recent months – at least during tours abroad.

Folk singer Carlos told a Miami television station last week that
he admired the , a support group for the wives and
mothers of Cuban political prisoners which the government dismisses as
paid stooges of Washington.

Varela said he thought it was "fantastic" that members of the group
whose name translates to "Ladies in White," have been nominated for a
Noble Peace Prize. He also bluntly denounced the "acts of repudiation"
by government supporters who surrounded the Damas and shouted insults at
them for hours several times in recent weeks.

In March, another top Cuban folk singer, Pablo Milanes, defended a Cuban
dissident hunger striker who is demanding the release of political
prisoners and told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that Cuba's aging
leaders "are stuck in time."

"History should advance with new ideas and new men," said Milanes, who
also was once a member of the communist government's parliament.

Rodriguez and Milanes are barely on speaking terms. But they and Varela
are allowed to overseas freely, unlike most ordinary Cubans – for
whom permission to travel abroad is costly and hard to get.

Citing an example of erroneous policies in his comments to the AP,
Rodriguez mentioned the "revolutionary offensive" of 1968, when the
government nationalized all businesses, taking over everything from
elegant department stores to mom-and-pop soda shops.

Rodriguez characterized the move as "the Cuban state deciding to dabble
in national commercialism up to the craziest of limits, including
bureaucratizing French-fry stands."

"We are still paying for that," he said.

U.S. officials have yet to approve Rodriguez's visa and they did not
respond in time last year, when he wanted to travel to New York for a
tribute to another folk legend, Pete Seeger.

Rodriguez, however, said he doesn't expect problems.

"I trust that now they will give me a visa," he said.

Though political relations have not significantly improved between the
United States and Cuba under Barack Obama, cultural exchanges
involving musicians from both countries are becoming more common.

Scores of Cuban artists have played American cities of late and the
island's 89-year-old prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, will return next
month to New York and the American Ballet Theater, one of the places
where she got her start in dance. U.S. funk pioneers Kool & the Gang
also won permission for a recent show in Havana.

Rodriguez is considered by many to be Latin America's Bob Dylan, and he
and Milanes are founding members of the "Nueva Trova," which combined
music and revolutionary politics.

Rodriguez also plans shows in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and
Puerto Rico. He recalled last playing New York in 1978, singing at a
theater on Broadway.

"At 5 o'clock in the afternoon it was full," he said. "I couldn't
believe it."

Rodriguez called playing Carnegie Hall "fantastic," but is careful not
to get too hung up on playing famous venues for the first time: "I'm a
bit too old for that."

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