Cuba’s ’Dylan’ Plays Carnegie Hall as U.S. Boost Cultural Trade

Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez last played New York City in February 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president and the Cold War defined international politics.

On June 4, Rodriguez, 63, an artist closely identified with the Cuban revolution, will begin his first U.S. tour in 31 years at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall.

The decision to give Rodriguez a visa comes as Washington is authorizing more cultural exchanges with Cuba even while continuing to block U.S. tourist travel and business ties to the island, said Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas in New York.

“The fact that we’re willing to grant a visa to Silvio Rodriguez, an icon of the revolution, the bard of the revolution, demonstrates that the Cold War dynamic, the fear, the isolation, the retribution, we’re past that,” Sabatini said. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean this administration is in any hurry to push for a real opening.”

President Barack Obama’s administration eased travel restrictions last year for Cuban-Americans to visit the island and transfer money to relatives. The president hasn’t taken a public position on lifting the 47-year travel ban or the trade embargo, said State Department spokesman Charles Luoma- Overstreet in an e-mail. The U.S. House of Representatives may vote later this year on the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, a bill that would end the ban.

Rodriguez’s trip follows Cuban musician Carlos Varela’s New York concert in May and the salsa band Los Van Van’s January performance in Miami. The pop groups La Charanga Habanera and Buena Fe have played in the U.S. in recent months.

‘Olive Branch’

“The Obama administration has come through with its pledge to use cultural diplomacy as an olive branch with Cuba,” Bill Martinez, a San Francisco immigration lawyer who handled Rodriguez’s visa application, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a huge contrast with (former President George W.) Bush.”

Rodriguez’s visit has attracted more attention in Havana and among Cuban-Americans than visits of other artists because few Cuban artists are as openly supportive of the government or symbolically tied to the revolution as Rodriguez, said Sandra Levinson, director of the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies .

“Silvio is beloved in Cuba, and even those on the right and in Miami love his music,” said Levinson, who first met Rodriguez 40 years ago when she led some of the early U.S. tours to the island that were allowed under the travel ban. “As for the Castros, I would call his position ‘feisty support’ -- capable of arguing vehemently while being supportive of the ideals though not always the policies of the Cuban government.”

‘New Cuban Song’

Rodriguez was 12 when Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown. His best-known early songs, “Ojala” and “Playa Giron,” are hallmarks of the political folk-music movement known as “Nueva Trova Cubana” or “New Cuban Song.” He has made almost 20 albums and regularly performs around the world. Rodriguez also served for five years as a deputy in Cuba’s parliament, said Hugo Cancio, president of Fuego Entertainment Inc., the Miami-based group handling Rodriguez’s tour.

He was known as the “Bob Dylan of Latin America,” because of “the poetic nature of his music and because he doesn’t have much of a voice,” Levinson said.

Profit from Rodriguez’s concerts will go to Fuego Entertainment, Cancio said, adding that Fuego plans to make a “small donation” to a charity following the tour.

After the New York show, Rodriguez will perform in the Oakland, California, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Orlando. He’ll also play a second Carnegie Hall show after the first one sold out in about a week, Cancio said.

Less Opposition

Opposition to Rodriguez’s visit isn’t as strong as if he had attempted to play in the U.S. 10 or 20 years ago, said Frank Calzon, director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Arlington, Virginia. A 1999 Los Van Van concert in Miami was marred by fighting between concertgoers and anti-Castro demonstrators; no such incident occurred at their January Miami show, said Martinez

“Cultural exchanges are fine but don’t forget, artists that visit from Cuba are official, government-sanctioned artists. Not any Cuban artist is allowed to leave the country and perform,” Calzon said in a phone interview.

U.S. companies eager to invest in Cuba have been encouraged by Rodriguez’s visit, said Kirby Jones, a Bethesda, Maryland- based consultant who advises such firms. Lifting the travel ban is viewed as integral to business’s larger goal of eliminating investment restrictions and ending the embargo, he said.

“To companies that are wondering ‘what’s next,’ these cultural exchanges, in particular someone of the stature of Silvio Rodriguez, are very significant,” he said. “If the travel ban is lifted, business executives would at least be able to go to Cuba to meet with their counterparts. And that’s a big step.”

To contact the writer on the story: Leon Lazaroff in New York at llazaroff@bloomberg.net

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