Air Date: September 23, 1997||
Various Cuban citezens and tourists
(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)
JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground. In this edition of Common Ground,
two reports from Cuba We first look at the continued growth of the tourism industry.
MARGARET: Hi, my name’s Margaret and this is my fourth time to Cuba, my third time
sailing, and I come from St. Petersburg, Florida, where there are many sailors who have come
to Havana, Cuba.
MARTIN: And later for the first time in decades, Cuban musicians are finding an
audience in the United States.
PEDRO DE LA HOZ: (via a translator) Cuba has always had a great affinity for the US
in cultural matters. The cultural relations go back a long time and especially in the area
MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.
MARTIN: In early September, three terrorist bombs exploded in Havana, killing one
Italian tourist. According to the Cuban government the bombs were intended to discourage
tourism, one of the island’s main sources of hard currency. But so far, the bombs haven’t
slowed the tourist influx to Cuba, including the 75, 000 Americans who visited last year.
Many of them are violating the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Correspondent Reese Erlich?? reports
from Havana about this increasing defiance of U.S. policy.
REESE ERLICH: In many ways, Old Havana hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s.
Musicians play traditional son music in front of outdoor cafes. Nineteen-fifties era
DeSoto’s and Studebakers still chug down the streets. And here in a narrow side street
sits a rickety old bar, barely 20 feet square. The Bodeguita del Med is crammed with about
30 people. Dozens more line up to get in. The walls are covered with photos of literary
greats and Hollywood stars. Pablo Menendez, an American expatriate in Cuba, explains that
Ernest Hemingway used to drink at the Bodeguita, located…
PABLO MENENDEZ: It used to be a grocery store in the middle of the block, between two
print shops actually, so a lot of writers would come down and check out the galleys and things
of their work about to be published. That sign by Hemingway that have “my daiquiri and
Floridita in my Mojita at the Bodeguita,” is because according to the legend of the area he
used to have his daiquiri up at the Floridita restaurant, then walk down a few blocks down
here and have a Mojita because Mojitas were better than at Floridita restaurant.
ERLICH: But on September 4, someone shattered the touristic calm of the Bodeguito del
Med by planting a bomb. Luckily, no one was hurt. But that same day, a terrorist bomb did
kill an Italian businessman at a Havana hotel. Leonel Borrego, a Cuban government spokesman,
blames the bombings on right wing Cubans living in the U.S. who have historically launched
armed attacks against the island.
LEONEL BORREGO: You can go to a city and ask to anybody what do they think about this
bombing and they will say I don’t agree with that. I am against that you know because that’s
against the people, putting bombs in places where people survive, you know, especially
foreigners, you know. That bombs has the only the intention to, to keep away the tourism,
you know. They know that tourism are coming here that more people are coming to the country
ERLICH: Borrego says that the anti-Castro extremists in the U.S. are determined to
undercut the tourism industry because it has proven so successful in improving the economy.
But so far, says Borrego, the bombings have not stopped tourists from visiting.
BORREGO: If you go to an airline agency right now and you ask for a space, you know,
to go out or inside the country, you would see that there is, there is no place you know, to
fright, no place at all, you know. The bombing has had no effect, you know, against the
tourism arriving to Havana, not at all.
ERLICH: It’s too soon to know if the September bombings will frighten off future
tourists, but this American said he’s not worried. He’s touring Cuba in defiance of the U.S.
embargo, so he doesn’t want his real name used. We’ll just call him Robert.
ROBERT: I didn’t really understand Cuba.
ERLICH: He’s among the tens of thousands of Americans who visit Cuba illegally each
year to enjoy the sun and rum and find out for themselves what’s going on politically.
ROBERT: I’d only heard a lot of negative propaganda and I have to admit I’d bought
into some of that, like I thought it might be, I’d heard it was a repressive regime and you
hear about the boat people desperately trying to get away. And so it was sort of a forbidden
fruit in a way.
ERLICH: But Robert found the country anything but repressive. He was free to go
anywhere, meet people, and strike up conversations. His impression of the country changed
ROBERT: Aside from seeing a few people having their I.D.’s checked by policemen, there
isn’t really an air of lack of freedom here. In fact, the people seem to have a joy and a
basic contentedness with their life that you don’t hardly see anywhere in the world.
ERLICH: The U.S. government and lots of Cuban-Americans would strongly disagree with
Robert. But American visitors can easily do their own investigation. Walk over to the Malecon,
the seawall that runs along the Havana harbor; hundreds of Cubans come here everyday to fish,
swim, or just watch the waves, and they love to talk with Americans. This blue collar worker
says a majority of people in Cuba support Fidel Castro and Socialism.
CUBAN WORKER: (Reese Erlich translating) He says, “Fidel Castro has been our leader
for many years. He’s a great revolutionary. He still has a lot of popular support.”
ERLICH: Finding a stranger willing to say some negative about the government is more
difficult, but possible. Critics didn’t want their names used for this story, but then again
neither did the American tourists. I asked one Cuban the percentage of people in his neighborhood
who oppose Fidel.
CUBAN MAN: Maybe 60 to 65 percent would be against and the rest for. That’s my guess.
ERLICH: Of course, it’s impossible to determine nationwide public sentiment through
random conversations but contrary to the preconceptions of many Americans, Cubans are willing
to discuss political issues. And they will inevitably ask the Americans why it’s illegal for
them to visit Cuba, when everyone else in the world is free to come here. Although not well
known, there are some legal ways for Americans to visit the Island and one of them sits
nestled in Havana’s Hemingway Marina.
(Sounds of sailors talking in the background)
ERLICH: Margaret’s sailboat floats gracefully on the water, tied to a grass jetty at
the marina. A gentle breeze sends its flag fluttering. On any given day, perhaps half the
18 boats here are American.
MARGARET: Hi, my name’s Margaret and this is my fourth time to Cuba, my third time
sailing and I come from St. Petersburg, Florida where there are many sailors who have come to
Havana, Cuba on their sailboats.
MARTIN: Margaret and other American sailors take advantage of a twist in U.S. law.
The U.S. embargo permits travel to the island, but prohibits Americans from spending money
here. Theoretically, sailors live on their boats, don’t spend money in Cuba, and thus don’t
break the embargo. Margaret declined to give her full name, however, just in case she decides
to buy a daiquiri on shore. She spends a lot of her time meeting ordinary Cubans.
MARGARET: People come up and approach you because they’re curious who you are and
they’re always surprised when you’re an American. And they particularly love when you can
speak Spanish. And as I say, you come here and you have no families and within a few days you
have five new families and the people are sincere that way. They’re so genuinely hospitable
and they really value friendship for friendship and they don’t expect anything else.
ERLICH: Cuba suffers from a big gasoline shortage and many Cubans ride bikes these
days. Margaret even brings her own bicycle, stored on the stern of the sailboat.
MARGARET: This time my friend and I, we bicycled to two little fishing villages to the
east, excuse me, to the west here and it just saves a lot of time. And then as, when you’re in
Cuba, do as the Cubans, and you ride a bike and it’s easier to get around to meet people and
see the sights and you always have an adventure. There’s always something interesting to see
or people to talk to.
ERLICH: On those bicycle trips, Margaret sees firsthand the terrible economic conditions
on the island. The collapse of the old Soviet bloc, combined with the U.S. embargo, have
caused the economy to spiral downwards. There’s not enough food, electricity, gasoline, or
other basic necessities. But compared to the early 1990s, says Margaret, conditions have been
MARGARET: Well, I’ve been coming here since ’92. I can definitely see many
improvements, many more cars, they have little businesses going, there are more availability
of goods. People will talk about the problems here in stride. They realize that they’ve come
a long way but they have to stick with the struggle and they look to the future of more
improvement. They would like to see an end to the blockade, but their main premise is they
want their sovereignty.
ERLICH: Over and over again the issue of the U.S. blockade comes up. The U.S. government
argues that the blockade will force the Castro government to institute human rights and free
market reforms. In the opinion of ordinary Cubans, the 35-year-old embargo does little to
hurt Fidel Castro, but causes them a lot of economic problems. Last year, President Bill
Clinton tightened the U.S. embargo, by signing the Helms-Burton Law, under which foreign
companies can be sued in U.S. courts if they invest in property once owned by Americans or
Cuban-Americans. The law is universally condemned outside the U.S. because it tries to force
other countries to abide by U.S. law. That section of the law hasn’t yet gone into effect,
but other parts of Helms-Burton have already discouraged some foreign investment. Cuban
economist Omar Everleny Perez explains.
OMAR PEREZ: (via a translator) It’s hard to know the direct impact of Helms-Burton
because we don’t have exact statistics. But it’s my sense that foreign companies are more
cautious about investing here in Cuba. They feel that they have less control over their
investments. They’re waiting to see the results of this new U.S. policy.
ERLICH: The tourist we called Robert strongly opposes the U.S. embargo and thinks
Americans should be free to visit the island. But he also has misgivings about what will
happen here once the embargo finally is lifted.
ROBERT: My advice would be definitely come, try not to be an ugly American and try
not to pollute the people with materialism. For selfish reasons, I wish the embargo would
never end because if this place ever gets open to Americans, it’ll be ruined within two years.
But of course that’s not what I really feel because I feel the Cuban people deserve more than
ERLICH: The number of Americans visiting Cuba illegally has more than doubled in the
past several years. I asked Robert if he fears repercussions from the U.S. government after
ROBERT: Only if, only if you’re a U.S. agent, in which case I’m going to kill you right
after the interview.
MARTIN: When Common Ground continues, we’ll go back to Reese Erlich in Cuba for
a report on the re-emerging Cuba music industry.
ADALBERTO ALVAREZ: (via a translator) We respected the traditional forms, the great
son players. But we added a new vision, a new perspective. Africans have brought great musical
traditions to Cuba. Our music combines the best of Latin and African cultures.
MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program
are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground
is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts
varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialog on world affairs.
In the past year, an increasing number of Cuban musicians have performed in the U.S., changing
a long standing American government policy of limiting cultural exchanges. Reporter Reese
Erlich looks at the impact of this new policy on Cuban musicians. While there, he stumbled
across a fascinating mystery. Erlich takes us on a Cuban musical journey and along the way
tries to unravel that mystery.
ERLICH: Carlos Alfonso, leader of a Cuban band called “Synthesis” performed in Los
Angeles last year and will be touring again in October. Under terms of the U.S. embargo,
Cuban artists cannot profit from their tours and can only receive reimbursement for expenses.
Nevertheless, Alfonso and other Cuban musicians are anxious to visit the United States.
CARLOS ALFONSO: (Translated) It was love at first sight. I liked it a lot. There
are a lot of clubs. There’s a lot of professionalism among the individual musicians. I like
the land, the mountains. The recording studios are incredible. The sound engineers are very
good. Everyone was really nice. The abilities of American musicians are impressive.
ERLICH: Alfonso’s sentiment is echoed by Cuban music critic Pedro De La Hoz. He says
that many Americans just think Cubans want to defect. That’s not true says De La Hoz. Cuban
musicians travel to the U.S. today for the same reasons they have always gone, even before the
1959 revolution. De La Hoz says Cubans want to expand their musical experiences.
DE LA HOZ: (via a translator) Cuba has always had a great affinity for the U.S. in
cultural matters. The cultural relations go back a long time and especially in the area of
music. For many years the U.S. was the natural market for Cuban music. Unfortunately, the
tensions between the U.S. and Cuba over the past 40 years have impeded more frequent contacts.
So our musicians, especially those performing dance music and jazz, see their return to the
U.S. stage as something highly desirable.
(Sound of Cuban music)
ERLICH: When the Reagan administration took office in 1981 the U.S. government severely
limited the number of Cuban artists visiting the U.S. That began to thaw in the beginning of
President Clinton’s second term. Dozens of Cuban muscians and other artists have toured the
U.S. so far this year. Pablo Menendez thinks he knows why. He’s an American musician who’s
lived in Cuba for over 30 years. In 1993 the U.S. refused visas to his band, Grupo Mezcla .
So Menendez sued in federal court. Although he eventually lost the suit, the judge’s ruling
put pressure on the Clinton administration to change policies. Menendez says the change
wasn’t completely altruistic. It’s also part of an attempt to undermine the Cuban government.
Menendez says the Helms-Burton Law, which tightens the U.S. embargo, has two tracks. Track
one threatens retaliation against foreign companies investing in Cuba.
MENENDEZ: Track two on the other hand is, has the idea of ideologically undermining
the Cuban government by allowing, what they call—it’s sort of funny—a free flow of ideas,
meaning a free flow of their ideas towards Cuba but not of Cuban ideas towards the United
States. The idea is that these artists are supposed to go to the United States and see
quote-unquote “how great it is and then come back and be dissidents in Cuba. And it’s, you
know, it’s a particularly ethnocentric idea.
ERLICH: So far, according to musicians in Havana, track 2 doesn’t seem to be working
very well. Band leader Carlos Alfonso says his visit to Los Angeles last year didn’t turn him
into a dissident.
CARLOS ALFONSO: (via a translator) I like my country. If I didn’t like my country,
I would’ve split a long time ago. I’ve had thousands of opportunities to leave. People in
the U.S. treated me very well. I’ll say sincerely that I don’t feel I can say anything bad
about the U.S. or Cuba. I don’t belong to any dissident group.
ERLICH: After the formal interview with Alfonso, we were chatting about the history of
Cuban music and I mentioned Desi Arnaz in passing. Alfonso’s face went blank. I asked him
in Spanish if he knew who Desi Arnaz was.
(Erlich questioning Alfonso in Spanish about Desi Arnaz)
ERLICH: As it turns out, Alfonso is among dozens of Cubans I interviewed who had
never heard of the late Desi Arnaz or his hit song, “Babbaloo”.
(Desi Arnaz singing “Babbaloo,” followed by the Cuban music of Alvarez)
ERLICH: You can hear a little bit of Desi Arnaz in the music of Adalberto Alvarez.
He’s one of Cuba’s great modern day composers and band leaders. He’ll be touring the U.S. in
November. His latest CD, “Magistral”, is a hit in Cuba today.
ERLICH: Alvarez came from a musical family and he showed talent at an early age. He
was selected to attend a prestigious music college.
ADALBERTO ALVAREZ: (via a translator) When I entered the National Arts School, I
wanted to study piano. They didn’t have any openings for piano players. I knew I wanted to
be a musician and besides I didn’t want to lose my scholarship. So I ended up studying
bassoon, the only instrument available. Later I realized that my talent was for popular
music and I began teaching myself to play the piano by learning dance music. I tried to use
the bassoon to play sohn music, but it didn’t work.
ERLICH: Son is the traditional Cuban music that forms the basis for modern day Salsa.
Alvarez started his career playing Son but quickly evolved a new musical style. He says
that’s because there’s no commercial recording industry here pressuring musicians to make a
profit. He says artists are freer to experiment.
ALVAREZ: (via a translator) My group saw the Son in a fresh, more contemporary
light. We were young people, having just graduated from music school. My outlook was still
very fresh and so our way of playing the song was new. It was a different way of relating to
it. We respected the traditional forms, the great son players, but we added a new vision, a
new perspective. Africans have brought great musical traditions to Cuba. Our music combines
the best of Latin and African cultures.
ERLICH: Alvarez took the old musical structure of son and added the contemporary
upbeat tempo of salsa. The results have been pleasing audiences in Cuba and around the world
ERLICH: Certainly a band leader like Alvarez who has studied the history of Cuban
music has heard of Desi Arnaz. I asked him in Spanish.
(Erlich Question in Spanish about Desi Arnaz)
ERLICH: This was getting to be too much. I decided to visit a farmer’s market in
Havana to ask people at random about Desi Arnaz.
(Erlich asks several people in Spanish about Desi Arnaz and they all reply “No”.)
ERLICH: No one had ever heard of him. In the 1920’s Desi Arnaz’s father was mayor of
Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city and had allied with the dictator then running the
country. Desi Arnaz himself was certainly no friend of Fidel Castro. I speculated that
perhaps Cuba’s Communist Party had erased the Arnaz family from the historical record. Then
out of the blue I found one woman at the farmer’s market who said the name Desi Arnaz sounded
CUBAN WOMAN: Desi Arnaz, yes I know, I know, of course, Desi Arnaz, my neighbor, he
lives very near from my house. Oh no, I’m sorry, no it’s not Desi Arnaz, this is Desi Arnaldo.
ERLICH: Pablo Menendez’s group Mescla is trying out a new song during a practice
session in his living room. Mescla will be touring the U.S. in late October and November.
As an American citizen, Menendez can enter the U.S. any time, but he looks forward to bringing
his Cuban musicians with him this time.
MENENDEZ: I have such diverse tastes that I can never be satisfied with what I’m
playing. I’m always wanting to play more things and be more mixed in and have more things
come into the music. And one of the possibilities of having this cultural exchange opportunity,
to have the experience of other audiences and other musicians from other places, other
countries, is the possibility to continue to grow in that sense, to contribute something to
them and to learn something from other musicians. And that’s what Mescla’s about.
ERLICH: Mescla means mixture in Spanish and that’s what characterizes the group’s
music. They mix a variety of musical styles into an unusual Cuban stew. Menendez talks about
a song they play called “Ikiri Adda.”
MENENDEZ: It’s one particular song that has the basis of Afro-Cuban Bataa drumming
mixed with the Zouk rhythm from Martinique and which is one of the strongest musics of the
Caribbean. And it also has some jazz influence and some rock influence and it also has some
influence from South African singing and some West African guitar styles. It’s a very danceable
and lively tune with, very, I think, profound political lyrics but stated in a very spiritual
ERLICH: At the end of my conversation with Menendez, I mentioned the Desi Arnaz mystery.
As an American, of course, he had grown up with “I Love Lucy” but he really didn’t really know
why most of today’s Cubans had never heard of the bandleader.
(Desi Arnaz singing in English)
ERLICH: Finally I tracked down Leonel Borrego Reyes, a 65-year-old Cuban government
spokesman. We had been talking about the Cuban economy, but in desperation I mentioned the
Desi Arnaz question. Much to my surprise, he immediately recognized the name.
LEONEL BORREGO REYES: Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Yes, yes I have seen them in many
pictures. Very famous artist, Cuban artist.
ERLICH: When I asked Cubans today, “Who is Desi Arnaz?” they don’t know.
REYES: They are Cubans, the same as Caesar Romero, was a Cuban also. Very, very famous
artist and very good ones.
ERLICH: And the “I Love Lucy” show.
ERLICH: Was that ever broadcast here in Cuba? Do you know?
REYES: Yes, all of them. All those pictures were broadcast in Cuba. And all the
people know them very well.
ERLICH: Although he has not officially studied the mystery, Borrego suspects the answer
lies simply in the question of age. Older Cubans remember Arnaz, he says, but younger ones
don’t. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in Havana.
(Desi Arnaz singing “Babbaloo”)
MARTIN: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. Transcripts are free
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For Common Ground, I’m Jeff Martin.
B. J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © 1997,
The Stanley Foundation