"Cuba si Yankees too!": interview with Silvio Rodriguez

Singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, perhaps one of revolutionary Cuba's most emblematic figures -almost alongside Fidel Castro and definitely way ahead of Raúl- was interviewed this week by El Nuevo Día in no more than one run of back-and-forth e-mails, which ruled out any chance to hold a bilateral exchange of arguments, clarifications or cross-examination.

What follows is our attempt at "conversation"…

Dear Silvio, little as I know you -I'm only familiar with your music and ideals- it's obvious that I know you far better than you know me, which barring my name amounts to zilch. I hope this will make no difference in final analysis.

You live on your music and your art; I by writing and asking questions. Right now the circumstances -your imminent concert in Puerto Rico- have helped bring about our meeting, which I hope will fuel at least mutual reflection in spite of the limitations that any exchange other than a live, face-to-face conversation unavoidably entails.

Neither of us needs to be recalled that the Cuba issue is polarizing and thorny, especially when it comes to getting off the extremes and meeting halfway. It's with this certainty that I begin this…

Can such a halfway meeting ever be held between those who still believe the Revolution is the best thing that has happened to Cuba and those who feel that the same Revolution robbed them of their life and their freedom? Or is it just a utopian expectation?

In 2003, the newspapers in Miami said: "First Iraq; then Cuba". Our Island was swift to react: "If they come, they'll die here". It would seem that things are different today from what they were like in Bush's day, but the truth is that Cuba is still vilified and sized up with a huge glass that magnifies its flaws, blurs its virtues, and paints a hellish picture of life in the Island. But then again, very respectable and nonpolitical international bodies acknowledge Cuba's social achievements, to the point that tourism can be said to be safer in our country than most anywhere else. I think that if the hounding and cold-war policies targeted on Cuba come to an end, the media on both sides would be able to prepare people for another kind of meeting, and that much-needed rapprochement would no longer seem utopian and become a real possibility.

What's your opinion about the current situation in your country now that in other countries -in the "empire", as some would put it- the Cuban regime is seriously weakened, something that you seem to have admitted recently when you said that the Island should move from "revolution" to "evolution"?

As I see it, there are laws and regulations in Cuba that were necessary at first but have grown old since, and even big, historic mistakes were made that have not been corrected yet. So it has been acknowledged by the Cuban leaders, as these are things we have long warned about.

This has caused a huge stir lately because our current President said we had to make some changes when he took office three years ago. However, said changes turned out to be far from easy when it came to the crunch given our economic situation and the great losses we suffered as a result of three hurricanes in 2008, among other reasons. At this moment in time we have to reinvent ourselves in many ways. That's what I mean by evolution in my song "Sea señora" [Be a lady].

When did you first realize the need to change your "revolutionary" discourse -all that jazz about the Castro creed that prevailed since 1959- to talk instead about the need to move on and break new ground? What were the signs?

It's not a matter of discourse; it's about not forgetting to think big so that our hopes for a better life, both at collective and individual level, don't vanish in the day-to-day mediocrity. It's about the need to keep our humane, beautiful ideals alive and faithful to their essence so that all new ideas can fit in and vice versa.

What do you think are the main virtues of a regime that for 51 has plotted the route Cuba has followed?

The human qualities of the Cuban people, not only because of their considerable education, but also because they are women and men who never hesitate about going to heal and teach people in the most distant places and the most difficult conditions, even in times of war, as in the case of several Asian countries where thousands of Cubans are offering their services. Cuban doctors had been helping the Haitians for years by the time the country was shaken by the earthquake. Everyone who went there could see that, but very few said anything about it.

In your view, what have been the worst mistakes of the Castro brothers?

One of the things that should have never happened is the UMAP program, which remained active for six months and many keep rubbing our government's nose in it. And I think the "revolutionary offensive" of 1968 was a mistake we're still paying dearly for. We were naïve to believe the State could be on top of the whole country and label every form of private initiative anti-socialist.

You sing, among other things, to freedom… I'm truly curious to know how you bring that ideal into line with the undeniable fact that for the last fifty years the Cuban government has abolished some of the most basic human liberties, including the right to travel without restrictions and to leave your country at will.

Maybe if I were Puerto Rican I would have had more reasons to do so, but I don't think my songs are so much about freedom. Nevertheless, sometimes I've said publicly in Cuba that the so-called white card is outmoded and must be eliminated. What's certain is that some liberties look like a fable to me, and way more utopian and ethereal than any dream of social redemption. It's fine by me that they exist, or that the few souls that believe in them extol them whenever they feel like it. But I'd recommend that they read Michael Ende's book The Catacombs of Misraim, which shows why the mythic "freedom" that some people search for so eagerly is not all it's cracked up to be.

Notwithstanding all the good things the regime may have achieved, do you think it's morally commendable to have broken millions of Cuban families in the name of the Revolution precisely because their freedom of movement has been abolished?

Much as the previous U.S. Administration did its utmost to split up Cuban families, it didn't work out, as tens of thousands of Cuban émigrés travel to Cuba every year. The Revolution was not done to separate people, rather to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. Jesus of Nazareth also thought it proper to commit his life to the meek and ended up suffering at the hands of greed and a victim of a terrible ordeal.

Our Golgotha is the blockade and the media run by the powerful, which is immoral enough to justify such measure.

What can you say about the support that Cuba enjoys worldwide in contrast to the way things were, say, 20 or 30 years ago?

Thanks to major breakthroughs like the Internet, I've been able to see there's a lot more information against than there is in favor of Cuba. Luckily, Noam Chomsky, an extremely respectable researcher, has revealed that 90 percent of the media, whether analogical or virtual, are in the hands of the right wing. No wonder, then, that such "views" prevail.

Do you think it's healthy for Cuba and Hugo Chavez to be so obviously dependent on each other?

Isn't that what Bolivar and many other Latin American national heroes wanted? Didn't Martí speak of a community that he called Our Americas? When we fought to shake off the colonial yoke, who thought our union was unhealthy? Who's to say that helping each other is unhealthy nowadays? We should ask ourselves whether the open co-dependence shown by the first-world nations when they plot to bomb other countries to the ground is any healthier.

What's your opinion on the present status of the Cuba-U.S. relations?

It's better than it was under Bush, but it could be far better if the White House put things right and stop coercing Cuba. Now that would be wise and praiseworthy. As to me, I neither chant nor shout slogans in my concerts, although some people do it sometimes. More than once my audience has been surprised to hear me say that I'd love to shout, "Cuba yes, Yankees too!"

Is the time ripe for the U.S. to really improve its relationship with Cuba?

I'm sure things could improve if there were real willingness to do so.

Which present circumstances undermine those relations that the Cuban government could consider as negotiable? Which are not negotiable?

I don't know what the Cuban government thinks, but as far as I'm concerned, our dignity and sovereignty are not negotiable. As long as they keep making our adopting their political system conditional on any improvement, they're in for a big disappointment. That's not a negotiation, but a demand that we admit defeat. How can you expect to negotiate on those terms?

How do you feel about the controversial issue of the political prisoners and the Ladies in White?

They have violated Cuban laws not different from those currently in force in the U.S and many other countries. Still and all, I find their prison sentences were too harsh. It's not the first time I say that I would have set them free already. Perhaps putting pressure on the Cuban government pushes their release away. On the other hand, if I were in prison I would appreciate it if my mother, my daughter or my wife fought for my release. What can you say? But it's another thing to receive money from exiles who share bonds with self-confessed terrorists, something that in my opinion makes those ladies look bad.

Why do you think figures who were once committed supporters of the Cuban government eventually became opponents to the point of giving -even- their life, as in the recent case of Orlando Zapata?

I know several families in Banes -Zapata's hometown- and never did I hear that he was in favor of, or against for that matter, the Cuban government. It seems that the only verifiable testimony that Zapata left was his own death, which is said to have been his personal decision. The case of the Puerto Rican patriot Filiberto Ojeda, whom the FBI shot and left to die unattended, was a lot more outrageous.

Your recent exchange of letters with Carlos Alberto Montaner was closely followed worldwide, and although the tone of your discussion was unfriendly sometimes, it was seen as an encouraging sign that a dialogue was possible even between as radical antagonists as you two… Did you perceive it that way at all? What's the best thing you got from that process?

True, it looked interesting, but it was apparently useless. And what it set in relief more than anything else is that, the day after I told him I had no time to continue with the whole thing, Montaner started to say that the government gave me the red light. Maybe Carlos Alberto's greatest problem is that he always takes what comes into his head as a fact of life.

Finally, and not without thanking you for bearing with me all this time and, hopefully, for your answers, I have one last question for the "dreaming singer": is there any room in your dreams for a Cuba where -all- the Cubans can live in peace and with complete freedom?

Beware of absolutism, as it's very seldom fond of peace.


Original report of aticle in English on www.cubanow.net