The rapprochement of Cuba and the United States opens many possibilities but also represents challenges for Cuban culture.At the cultural level there has always been an exchange with the United States. If there were conditions for increasing that exchange, it would be like lifting barriers so that everything flows more naturally. If there is something frustrating it is not that the contact is negative, rather that it could increase the distortion which allows some to shine uncritically. I mean that mimicry can return even more pedestrian, if such a thing were possible.
Cuba is also a cultural force but without the economic power of US culture. Do you not fear that Cuban culture will find itself obliged to jump through hoops to access the US market?There have always been artists who think about markets and convenience, and also artists who put their art before everything else. I never forget that Martí saying about our branches being of the world but the trunk is still ours. Satyajit Ray began his celebrated trilogy Apu with a very lucid thought: "Account for your village and you will account for the world". Only banality is capable of making itself up as "world" and turning its back on its own, looking for easy success.
What are the main strengths of Cuban culture for facing the challenge of the new rapprochement with the United States?I believe in identity. Without confusing it with the characteristic of precision, which can result in caricature, like that little picture of Cubanness which seems to seduce so many. And that identity also evolves in a way directed by the people, which is what has happened. Even when we had no conscience that half a century of political confrontation has given us. Cuba resisted and carried on being Cuba. Why would it not do it now?
What are the main weaknesses?I suppose superficiality, which also spreads like purslane (weeds). And, occasionally, some outbreaks of opportunism.
In a moment in which the reforms are looking for self financing in all sectors, how can culture do it? Can ballet or cinema do it?Artistic activities which require complicated infrastructure, like ballet and cinema, are impractical in developing countries. But even more, if the will to build and sustain them doesn't exist. In Cuba they have been developed by the humanist vocation of Fidel Castro and by the force of personalities like Haydee Santamaria, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, Alfredo Guevara, Julio Garcia Espinosa and so on. Also, developed countries like Spain are in constant struggle for budgets for cinema, classical music and other forms. This happens even when in many places these expressions survive thanks to patronage. But I suppose that a socialist state must be more responsible, more benevolent. Also when it comes to a poor state, blockaded, each time with less help and to make matters worse a world economic crisis, as a backdrop. One wonders what it could mean for Cuba to be free from the blockade and fall in the hands of the IMF. Whatever happens, it is necessary to be brave to declare that we do not renounce socialism.Cuban filmmakers show they are aware of the reality; and also of their independence and our film law. I don't believe that ballet is going to disappear, but the institutions will struggle to survive without changes. It is admirable that figures like Liz Alfonso and now Carlos Acosta are moving forward with their projects. On the other hand also there are other new and interesting experiences, like the Art Factory (la Fabrica de Arte) of X Alfonso.Structures like the Foundations were accepted in Cuba with reservation, due to fear that they might become too independent. As a result there are projects which are taking years waiting for an announced revision of the Foundations law. Well I believe that one way of saving some good activities which began with the revolution is precisely to transform them into foundations, or similar institutions. And that each initiative will prove in practice its capacity and relevance.
Tourism in Cuba has increased a lot, they say that many tourists want to know the country "before the Americans arrive". Do you believe that Cuba really runs the risk of being Americanised, that McDonald's will supplant ‘pan con lechón'(Cuban version of hamburger)?You cannot underestimate the Cuban spark (of entrepreneurism). You only have to see the steep rise of restaurants and other services. If it arrives in Cuba, I don't doubt that McDonald's will push out sales of pan con lechón, although it will need to be seen. I hope that we don't change the healthy way that we still eat now: that is one of our values to defend. Some crafty people push nature so that fruit matures more quickly, which changes the flavour, and also does damage due to chemical agents. I hope that those bad habits don't spread and that we never swap our health in return for false growth. Things like that should be referred to with the phrase "before the Americans arrived".
Your concerts in the barrios have resounded a lot at national and international levelWe began doing them very discretely; we rejected that the work we were doing in those places was a show. But with time it has been inevitable that that happens. Some documentaries have helped. The first one made by Spanish Nico García, and is called Ojalá. Also there was an exhibition of pastels by Tony Guerrero and my photos at the Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente. Those things happening shone a light on the project.
Why did you decide to do them?The first concert I was asked to do by José Alberto Álvarez, a policeman who worked in the little neighbourhood of La Corbata. But with the result that going into the barrios is addictive. You arrive there and you see the families, the children, the old people in their doorways and on balconies, young people on the roofs, and the beauty overwhelms you and you see that there is a need and that the people thank you. There are no better reasons.
How many have you done?Today we will do concert number 68 and yesterday, 9 September, we completed 5 years of touring.
How do you finance it?I receive a bit of help from the state. They lend me the stage, the electricity generator and the lights, which are things we don't have. Also some people from the department of tours from the Ministry of Culture helps us. All the rest, the sound, the microphones, the instruments and the wages of some workers, are provided by the Ojalá project. These costs are a fixed element in our budget. The tours abroad help us to improve conditions, above all the quality of the horns, the sound tables, the cables, which little by little have become very professional. It is worth pointing out that all the musicians and artists which put themselves forward for the tour do so with absolutely no material interest.
Your opinions on the social situation which you have found in the barrios have triggered all sorts of comments. What did you really find in those places?Its not that I was unaware that there were neighbourhoods like this. The Ojala Project has been based next to El Romerillo barrio for more than 20 years. Everyone who lives in Cuba and looks for that, sees it. It is that the work in those places reveals not only the shortcomings and living conditions, more the constant struggle against laziness and bureacracy. For that reason we made ‘Cancion de Barrio' the documentary by Alejandro Ramirez which sums up the first two years of the tour: it is gritty, which is the reality. And for that reason the day of the premiere we invited the leaders of those places which were going to be exposed. Some of them went.
What do these concerts give you as an artist and as a person?I experienced it myself as a child, in the early years of the Revolution. I saw ballet not because of my family upbringing or due to economic possibilities, rather because suddenly Alicia Alonso was dancing in a square. What was so important about seeing the first documentary by Octavio Cortazar, for the first time? The arrival of a projector on a truck in the mountains where the cinema had never been. What were we doing in our youth, us, constantly, if not singing everywhere?…I have never stopped singing in that way, above all in my country.Maybe you don't know, but I have never charged for a concert in Cuba. Well, one time Luis Eduardo Aute and I charged for one, in the Karl Marx theatre, and we donated the money to San Antonio de los Banos, so that the mayor had a fund (which I'm not saying they didn't have) and would be able to pay workers who cleaned the river Ariguanabo. But also abroad I've sung like this. I've done it a lot in Mexico, where I began to visit for those Days of Solidarity with Uruguay. I did it in Colombia, in Venezuela, Angola, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay. I did it at sea, for some months, with the Cuban fishing fleet. I did it in prisons several times. A little while ago we did a concert in the neighbourhood of Lugano in Buenos Aires. In Chile I spoke to Michelle Bachelet about making a law which obliges foreigners to give one free concert. It looks like she couldn't do it.To achieve the systemisation of the Tour of the Barrios in Cuba (also known as the Endless Tour ‘Gira Interminable') has given me huge satisfaction. More than any other thing.
How do you see the possibility of maintaining the social project of the revolution?The humanist, revolutionary social projects will continue always as long as those who carry them out exist.
When on Segunda Cita (Silvio's own blog) we read "blog in evolution" one wonders if in another time you would not have said ‘blog in revolution'. Is there some contradiction between those concepts?There is no contradiction. What there is is consequence. The Cuban Revolution has been a huge reality, recognised in an unquestionable legacy. I have always been part of this whirlwind. I don't doubt that there may be another revolution in the future. But until that extraordinary moment arrives, it is down to us to evolve.
What do you believe must be the role of artists in the middle of this transformation, which Cuba is experiencing?That one about roles distresses me. We arrive at what we call art, or what is art, in different ways; sometimes by collective keys but also personal. So there are not always simple general answers; everything has aspects which are subjective, and that is very respectable. I think that we are all drawn towards what we believe is correct. Do we think the same? Obviously no. But there are refinements. I can have complicated dreams, but I identify myself with very basic things. I am against the blockade, and I consider everyone who is against the blockade as family. Those who are for a society which takes responsibility for the planet and for the least favoured, they are also my family.
What is poetry for you? How do you conceive it in these times? Is it necessary within the process of change in Cuba?Poetry is essential wherever human beings exist. It is accessible in many ways, certainly also like journalism. When I was young I read ‘Arte poetica' by José Zacarías Tallet, and it seemed to me like fantastic nonsense; but today I could subscribe to each one of those verses. For that reason I promise you that there is poetry "in the wheel of a bicycle" and that, in whatever circumstance, "the problem is finding it".
Do you want to send a message to your Spanish fans?I have always felt that I owe a lot to Spain. I arrived there in 1977, when many Latin American peoples had military governments. Some exiles took my music back to their countries because in Spain you could find my records. They camouflaged them with other bags…In 2016 it will be 9 years of no concerts there. I have tried several times, but the economic crisis has not permitted me. I would like to return one more time and do some shows, finally, to try doing a really beautiful concert in a neighbourhood in the most need; perhaps one where there are also immigrants. I dream to give that present. Ojalá we will be there.
Interview with Silvio Rodriguez by Fernando Ravesberg September 2015