Interview with Silvio Rodriguez in La Vanguardia, Spain

What are you preparing at this moment?

I am working on the post-production of two DVDs: one gathers together a concert that we offered free to the people of Santo Domingo in 2007, in the capital's baseball stadium. The other is a concert done in May of this year, in Teatro Karl Marx in Havana. In both cases the musicians who accompany me are the trio Trovarroco, Oliver Valdés and Niurka González. The first DVD is being produced by René Arencibia; the second, Lester Hamlet, with whom I collaborated also in a documentary about the tour that a group of writers and artists made to prisons, between January and May 2008.

I am composing songs for the first full-length 3D animation film that will be made in Cuba. It's a project of producer Ernesto Padrón about the story of the magician Meñique (of Laboulaye), of which José Martí did a very beautiful version. As well I am composing and taping themes for a possible CD, which I imagine will come out in 2009.

How do you find the musical panorama in Cuba, in general, and of trova in particular

There have never existed more orchestras and bands in Cuba as right now. There are setbacks, but groups of all musical expressions are increasing. From the time they graduate, concert musicians face the need for instruments, generally difficult to obtain, above all of professional quality; spare parts also are lacking, and as well in Cuba there are few luthiers.

If it's a question of a large orchestra, such as symphony orchestras that exist in several provinces, they require locales for large rehearsals and then theatres with certain conditions. So-called popular music also faces anxiety, but it grows. Despite material difficulties Cuban music always is reinventing itself with creativity. Right now isn't an exception. There continue existing problems with rock bands; but it seems it is more with social indiscipline that occurs around the concerts than with bias about the music.

Trova continues being made in ghettos, like it always has been. The majority of troubadours go on composing wonders, until one day a song makes a leap and identifies them. A good part of traditional trova survived thanks to its admirers, who loaned their living rooms and their patios so that it is was sung.

Feeling got out with the singers of the romantic song, while the composers landed up in obscure places, sometimes bothered by drunks. Nueva trova nearly was frustrated at birth, but it had help from many youth and from institutions such as the House of the Americas and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). Present-day troubadours have survived through the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Center.

There, in their courtyard on Muralla Street, in Old Havana, many have sung and their concerts have been taped. To have a meeting place has allowed them to exchange ideas and organize themselves a little; thanks to that we now know of many little groups scattered in different corners of the city.

Up to what extent do you think that leaving the country affects Cuban music and art?

It's a myth that Cuba is the Latin American country with the most emigrants. From Cuba some 8% leave. From several countries in the region between 9 up to 20% emigrate. Even if it were less, the absence distresses me, above all the economic ones. Seeing it like an impact on culture, we are a country with a great capacity for self-repair. Cuban talent and art schools have made an unbeatable duet.

A few months ago you participated in a tour of Cuban prisons. What lessons did you learn? How did you find the treatment that the prisoners receive from the State and authorities?

A fundamental lesson that I heard said with modesty, but with wisdom, by prison workers: "No prison is good." Without losing sight of that certainty, in Cuban prisons there are realities that burst open preconceptions and many prejudices. To be imprisoned in a Third World country and, on top of this, in a blockaded country, amazing rehabilitation experiences, unfortunately little known, are seen.

I talked a lot with prison authorities about the need to spread those accomplishments. It was not the first time that we were making a tour of prisons; on this occasion the event was more publicized, I believe for the good. Perhaps for that our visit gave rise to certain better supplies, at least in the 15 prisons that we visited. Art is created in a priceless part of the human being; in all the prisons we shared the stage with inmates and custodians. There we discovered aficionados with very strong vocations.

A little while ago I read that a symphony orchestra of Madrid had begun visiting some Spanish prisons. I tried to follow the sequence, but it was a single bit of news. Still, like that, it helped me think about the possibility of doing the same here, when we overcome the disasters left us by the hurricanes.

How do you see the musical tendencies, the tastes and the styles of the new generations?

I think that always there has been some old-fashioned respect for some of the momentary obsessions. In my youth I wrote a song called "Aunque no esté de moda" ("Although it's not in fashion). Last Saturday I turned on the television and, in a peak hour program, I saw a mass of faces completely new to me. The musical tendency that appears to predominate is that of the long discourses with hypnotic rhythms. I myself have a son who does rap.

He performs in the outskirts of Havana, in partially underground events that the youth make at the beaches. It's the same to me whatever style is used, always if it's livened up with an artistic spirit, as it is in his case.

All periods have their trends and their letting off steam. What is valuable begins mixed up with the ordinary, burning itself up in the melting pot of perseverance. Regrettably not only do dead leaves remain on the road; talents also fall that didn't have the necessary luck or strength. It's very important that young artists are encouraged and that they don't stop improving themselves. Cultural institutions must be full of cultured people, of expert talent scouts who can give assistance to youth.

The media and new communication technologies have made Cuba more permeable to consumption that for years were going rejected. This includes culture. To what extent do you think these influences are positive and in what way do they appear negative?

Personally I see as positive what frees me, but not blindly, because there are openings that are hooks for the unsuspecting. I know that you are saying to me that technology can bring to us the habits of societies of consumption and I start from the point that it is necessary – inevitable – to learn the world, with its defects and everything. By knowing diversity one arrives at knowing that not everything that the other does is good for oneself. Nor is it a secret that the so-called media tends to respond to the dominant interests.

Traditions, culture, ideologies protect themselves by justifying themselves and discrediting those who don't comply with their norms. A characteristic of so-called western culture is its fanaticism with technology. Those who don't excel with the latest device are considered, at the least, with pity. Well, I don't find any meaning in technology for the sake of technology, and neither in unbridled consumerism. They are habits that are using up resources and leaving no future for our children. However technology can be used on the basis of human betterment and in a way of being for everyone.

Decades of blockades and restrictions can bring about confusion. But that we can be naïve isn't to want to say that technology suffers from original sin. Because intelligence also can reformulate the advances of any knowledge according to its own identity.

In the recent congress of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba a long and expansive debate took place about artistic work and its remuneration in Cuba. According to how one sees it, and according to the situation, some Cuban artists may appear unfairly treated or, on the contrary, as privileged. But these are views from outside. What is yours from inside?

The world of entertainment is universally oversized, very especially the music industry, that generates tons of money. But in Cuba, despite its value, the majority of musicians have to go to great pains to live daily. In our country only dancing music and some plastic artists manage to be solvent. The other few artists who live better have obtained economic stability for our occasional work outside the country. On their part great actors have had to work as taxi drivers; others have emigrated to survive (there are also those who have not been able to put up with living abroad not even with success).

Writers and filmmakers, since before the Revolution, have suffered economic limitations. But this problem is not only in the cultural sector, which is also one of the best paying in the country. We have salary debts, for example, with professionals, with sportspersons, with all the people.

The UNEAC congress was significant because, after a long period of apparent apathy, many intellectuals got together to try to push forward society. To me the observations about the deterioration of some areas of the educational system, which is one of our social glories, appeared momentous. Because actually education, including artistic, is one of the poorest paid jobs. And it's more than fair to call for the respect of work when one is dealing with a national drama.

In that congress there was talk of the children who are abroad. It's a subject that borders on that of the problems of leaving the country, caused in great part from outside but also from within. Some months ago you stated your opinion against different restrictions in today's Cuba. Some have been lifted, but others continue in place, among them those relative to exits overseas. Do you think there is an abuse with this, as some outside commentators say?

Since its beginnings it has been said that the revolution is voluntary. On our island all families are broken in some part. It's not months but years that I declared myself publicly and privately on questions that I consider urgent, such as eliminating the need for permission for Cuban citizens to leave and enter their country.

That procedure was an interim solution some decades ago; today it appears more a restriction of citizen's rights and I think it's enough. Different hypotheses circulate about why the measure doesn't come to an end, but the government is cautious on the subject. This type of restriction of liberty fits wonderfully into the bad reputation of so-called real socialism. I am of the opinion that to break with this taboo would be very positive for the health of socialism, including that of Cuba.

What other things should change?

I think that the Cuban state has to be modernized. They converted us into being a besieged stronghold and this contributed to our encapsulation, but now the excess centralization weighs. They created formulas that worked in conditions of yesteryear and the questioning of those formulas continued being the responsibility of few. When they are judge and at the same time party, even the purest truths run the risk of turning into smugness.

This creates an official rhetoric that even in aesthetics distances new generations from the essence; it gives place to vice, to new forms of corruption, to opportunism, to demagogy. There are two things that a society needs: one is to generate enthusiasm and the other is to offer security. Sometimes the wonder occurs of seeing these two virtues together: for previous generations enthusiasm produced confrontation with forces that denied the Revolution, that on its side provided security to the people, making justice.

The new generations live in another reality: the justice which was fought for before is now institutionalized. Some youth only feel the inconveniences of living in a country where almost everything is in short supply and with too much absurd administration. For them the foreign turns itself into an illusion. Enemies, on their part, don't need to disembark on our beaches: they know that the blockade has done more damage to us than any invasion and also they have woven a vast propaganda network, through the press and Internet.

Faced with an aggressiveness that has known how to evolve with the times, sometimes the defences of the government appear obsolete. To my way of seeing it, centralism must be surpassed with a more pragmatic and mature system. I already know that with haste one can't untangle a mop. Faced with so much hostility any significant step is more risky than when the Revolution was young. But perhaps on this depends that so many sacrifices are not wasted.

Are you in favor of a greater political and/or economic opening? Up to what limits? Is there not greater pressure after the devastating passage of two hurricanes?

Cuba always has been in the center of hurricanes stronger than Gustav and Ike, without diminishing the cruelty of these hurricanes. Those who suffocate us have done more damage to us than all the hurricanes. Notice that in the first days of the disaster, apart from honorable friendly exceptions, including that of Spain, solidarity with Cuba appeared tightfisted, when not a formality.

Even so, in the most battered areas they haven't stopped working really hard and those who have lost everything maintain confidence in their country, from the principles of solidarity that we always practice. In the face of a tragedy like this I want even less that my country goes back to a system that encourages egoism, futility and exploitation; a system that right now is giving serious signs of failure.

If we weren't socialists this would have cost us thousands of lives and many more material losses. Through my own experience I know that socialism can have many absurdities, but between two imperfect systems I choose the one that opts for human solidarity, for equality of opportunities to those who are born, regardless of birthplace they may have. Of course I want Cuban socialism to evolve into more participative and democratic forms, which I would understand more as a deepening than as an opening.

On this matter, the Cuban government just proposed, at least verbally, the possibility that the salaries of Cubans will increase, to the extent that they do more work. The Cuban state declares itself ready to pay the labor force without setting a ceiling. I think that now we make easier the road to work.

But in particular, what would you ask of Raúl and Fidel?

I don't think that I should send any message through a newspaper, not even Granma. I wouldn't want Fidel or Raúl, among the papers that they put daily on their tables, to find a journalistic note with one of my messages.

I understand that the media can arrive almost everywhere, but what I need to have known I sing or write. Thus I will continue to run the risk that a board with the initiative my function is suspended or "I am filed in copies and not in originals."

What is your balance of 50 years of revolution?

I can summarize it by asking myself how many people pass through life without finding a reason for existence, without a reason for being, without a minimum trace of coherence. To be a son of and to be faithful to the Cuban people is the best life that one can have. That has been one of my privileges and that of many of my generation. Like that, my reckoning may not be ideal, but it's satisfactory.

Why didn't you repeat as a candidate to be a national Member of Parliament?

I began in the fourth legislature, in 1993, at the start of the so-called Special Period, exactly when the socialist camp collapsed and it was announced that History had ended. If then I wrote the song "El necio (about commitment and loyal to to the Revolution), the most consistent was to respond to the call of my country when I was elected without having been nominated. Five years later I accepted joning the fifth legislature and another five years later the sixth, making a total of 15 years as a Member of Parliament to the National Assembly. It's an honor for my curriculum and enough time for someone like me, without a political vocation.

What can be awaited from a change of presidency in the United States? (If Obama wins / If McCain wins)

There are those who say that the Republicans are far and away more lenient to Cuba than the Democrats. To me it appears that, regardless of who wins, the task that the next president has is formidable: to recuperate not only international confidence in the United States, but that of its own citizens in the security of their system. Let's hope that Obama wins, for the good of his people and so that the act of an Afro-American winning is a contribution to that new world that they promise.

The world is living times of changes and turbulences, some more disturbing than others. How do you see the future?

I look with hope at the processes of the left in Latin America. I trust that they won't make our mistakes; I said this once to president Chávez. I trust that each time that there is more of a common front and that we manage to change ourselves into a group of sister and solidarity nations, it is the realization of the dream of Bolívar, of Martí and of many other national heroes. Let's hope that sooner rather than later there exists a Latin American and Caribbean Union, just like today there exists a European Union.

I hope that aggressions end throughout the world; that the youth, who were sent to kill and to die for more than doubtful causes, return to their homes. I hope that the Israelis and Palestinians manage to understand each other and end that vendetta that crosses centuries and that pains so many. I hope that spending on arms stops and that all that money is invested in health and education for Third World countries, most especially in Africa, where an unacceptable poverty exists to the shame of humanity.

I hope that all children who are born, without exception, have the right to life, to food, to health, to studies and much later to work. I hope that the concept of ethnic minorities disappears as a form of discrimination, that all of us have the same rights and that we are considered equals, above gender, race, beliefs, sexual preferences, etc, etc.

I hope that an ecological conscience grows and the power to stop environmental depredation, so that we can stop the destruction of our planet. These days, more and more analysts agree in that another Great Depression is beginning and that afterwards nothing will return to be the same. I hope that the poor don't pay once again for the irresponsibility of the rich. I hope that the United States lifts its blockade against Cuba.

I am a strange combination of pessimist with Utopian ideas. I have a very bad aim when I announce my hopes. Many times I say that something is going to happen and the opposite occurs. This has made me superstitious with my own wishes. And so that you can see that this is true, or that appealing to the opposite of what I'm saying I'm going to end by saying that the future of the world is hell.

(Published in La Vanguardia, Spain, Nov 08)

*Translated by Susana Hurlich