On Stage at the Gran Teatro and the Party Congress

Last weekend, on the eve of a visit by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we sat in a performance hall named for Cuba’s eternal Alicia Alonso, with hundreds of Cubans, their hands filled with programs and smartphones, and waited for the curtain to rise for a premier performance by the dance company led by Carlos Acosta.

Here, in a cathedral that honors the Cuban ballerina and choreographer – who danced with George Balanchine in New York, who fled the Batista dictatorship to dance Giselle in Russia; who returned home with support from her revolutionary government to transform her ballet company into the National Ballet of Cuba – we applauded Acosta’s return from abroad.

Born in Havana, Acosta danced at the National Ballet School of Cuba under Alicia Alonso and, after leaving Cuba, landed roles as a guest principal artist with leading ballet companies around the world. On the heels of his classical training, he brought to the Gran Teatro’s stage in Havana a program that was exciting, breathtaking, and new.

The choreography, music, art and athleticism of the dancers – even as they swept past the classical conventions of what marked the highly accomplished Cuban ballet – ennobled the stage and Ms. Alonso herself. In this time – as in her time – the program was an immense expression of what Cubans have accomplished when they aspire to do great things.

As we sat alongside Cubans in this majestic setting, Acosta’s dancers, heirs to a fortune created before their birth, by sharing their portion of the nation’s patrimony with visitors from the United States, showed the cohesive power of culture to bring people together.

Culture has enormous power. It cannot replace diplomacy, but collaboration in the arts and humanities, between the U.S. and Cuba, can play an important role in moving it forward.

As we saw the dancers perform “I regret nothing” to the music of Edith Piaf, and “The End of Time,” with music by Rachmaninoff, we thought of a party gathering elsewhere in Havana, and were reminded that even the highest aspirations can be tripped up by the awkward dance of politics.

You could read the headlines crowning the coverage of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party by the international press that way. “Cuba’s aging leaders to remain in power years longer,” one said. “Cuba pops the bubble of high expectations,” read another.

These and other reports documented the disappointment voiced by Cubans on the record that the congress produced no dramatic economic reforms or senior leadership retirements. “Older people should retire,” a printing company worker said. Some commentators in the U.S., of course, decided this was evidence that President Obama’s reforms had again failed to change Cuba.

But, other analysis revealed the deeper nuance of the dance.

As Fulton Armstrong notes, President Castro walked a tightrope all weekend “between pressing harder for change and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.” For example, President Castro –

  • Confirmed that the merger of Cuba’s two currencies remains a priority of the country’s economic policy despite its threat of inflation and disruption to the country’s supports.
  • Affirmed that foreign investment would play an increasing role in Cuba’s economy because, in Castro’s words, it promotes “exchanges of technology and management systems about which the country knows practically nothing.”
  • Asserted the Cuban state would continue to shed activities “not decisive to the development of the nation.”
  • Praised the role of Cuba’s growing private and cooperative sector and called “the immense majority of the entrepreneurs…revolutionary and patriotic.”
  • Conceded, as he did during the 2011 Congress, that the fight against racism that impedes the rise of Afro-Cubans to leadership must continue, and criticized the failure to promote more women to decision-making positions for slowing Cuba’s potential.
  • And blamed the bureaucracy for inertia and not encouraging “initiative and entrepreneurship.”

At the same time, President Raúl Castro used the occasion to restate his rejection of capitalism and multi-party democracy, and to warn against diplomatic overtures from the U.S., whose real goal is regime change.

It is true that a gathering of the faithful, where former President Fidel Castro told Party members he would soon turn 90 and he would be “joining the rest,” making this likely one of the last times he’d give an address before the Party, nobody moved to turn his legacy upside down.

For those of us in the U.S. who support the normalization process, it would be better, as Fulton Armstrong observed this morning, if Cuba did more through “regulatory measures encouraging business deals (with U.S. firms) that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.”

And, as Peter Kornbluh, coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, told National Public Radio, “Cuba has no choice – and Raúl Castro’s leadership has been focused on this – but to attempt to modernize and evolve economically.”

Finding solutions to Cuba’s deepest problems without alarming its most determined hardliners will require choreography on the part of President Castro, of a kind that would make Carlos Acosta proud. Now that the Party Congress has cleared the stage, President Castro will have to reconnect with the larger Cuban audience that is waiting for and wanting more.

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U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba to lift cruise ship ban for citizens, clears way for Carnival voyage, Marc Frank, Reuters

Cuba’s government announced it would allow Cuban-born persons to travel to the island by sea using commercial vessels. According to a government statement published in Granma, Cuban-born persons are now permitted, “independently of their migratory status to enter and leave as passengers and crews of cruise ships.” For Carnival Corporation, the first cruise line to receive permission to bring U.S. travelers to Cuba in over 50 years, this means that it will take its historic journey to Cuba on May 1.

Prior to the announcement of the regulatory change, Carnival Corporation had said it would postpone its voyage if Cuban-born persons were not able to travel to the island by sea. This was a reversal of Carnival’s original position prohibiting Cuba-born persons from purchasing tickets for the cruise, in compliance with Cuba’s now-revised migration policy, as the International Business Times reports.

“This is a positive outcome and we are extremely pleased,” confirmed Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald in a statement.

As we reported last week, a Cuban law restricting sea travel to and from the island for Cuban-born put the voyage in jeopardy. Cuba’s government has stated that it will also review its prohibition on Cuban-born persons entering Cuban territory on recreational vessels like fishing boats and yachts.

Smokey Robinson and other U.S. artists hail new ‘love’ with Cuba, David Montgomery, The Washington Post

Members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, including top administration officials, and artists including Smokey Robinson, Joshua BellUsher, Dave Matthews, and Alfre Woodard traveled to Cuba this week. The artists on the trip enjoyed an unfettered exchange with a cross-section of Cuban musicians, from the venerable Carlos Varela to an all-female orchestra. Megan Beyer, Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, spearheaded the successful cultural mission, which produced several notable announcements.

Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), announced that the U.S. government’s USArtists International (USAI) program will soon begin funding visits of U.S. artists to Cuba, and that the Southern Exposure: Performing Arts of Latin America program will fund select Cuban artists to tour the United States.

William D. Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), announced that the NEH has awarded the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware a grant to support an academic delegation to Cuba to discuss conservation methods and practices with their counterparts.

David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, together with Gladys Collazo, Chairman of the National Council of Cultural Heritage in Cuba, affirmed their “aim to reach common goals of environmental and cultural sustainability, mutual respect and cultural exchange,” as well as to sustain and present Cuban culture at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas had the privilege to help organize and advise the U.S. cultural mission.

José Martí, the National Poet, David Brooks, New York Times

New York Times columnist David Brooks traveled with the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to Cuba this past week. Brooks offers his reflections, focusing on the influence of Cuban poet and national hero José Martí. Noting multiple mentions of Martí throughout his visit, Brooks writes, “It’s interesting to see what a powerful force a national poet can be. Long dead, Martí is a precious resource who unifies amid disagreement and fortifies in hard times.”

U.S. talent agent deal with Cuban entrepreneur marks change in business climate, Alan Gomez, USA Today

A U.S. talent agency has signed a contract with Cuban entrepreneur Pedro Rodríguez, a talent scout working in Havana. The deal itself is not a first, but the way in which it was announced this week, publicly with a signing statement at the Jose Marti Cultural Society, marks a shift in the business community. Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group, explained that the openness of this deal makes it unique, adding that most deals of this sort have been deliberately kept under the radar.

Rodríguez will work for Blue Entertainment Sports Television (BEST) to recruit Cuban artists for BEST to represent. John Blue, chairman and managing director of Blue Equity, the umbrella organization for BEST noted, “We see so much potential in Cuba. We’ve done this all over the world, so Cuba is just such a natural, close market. We’re big believers in the long-term potential there.”

L.A. Artists Prepare for Cuba’s First International Music Festival, Lori Denman-Underhill, LA Weekly

Set to take place in Santiago de Cuba from May 4 through 6, Mañana music festival will bring electronic and dance musicians from across the world to the island. Los Angeles artist Gifted and Blessed (Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker), who will make his first visit to Cuba for the festival, says, “I am interested in seeing how the people respond to electronic music and my style as well, which includes analogue synthesizers and drum machines. I also use field recordings…of traditional types of music, blended with the electronic.”

In Cuba

Cuba’s Seventh Party Congress: Raúl Castro presents grim portrait of Cuban reforms, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

Following President Raúl Castro’s assessment of the economy’s struggles and proposal for age limits on party leadership, the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba concluded Tuesday in Havana after former president Fidel Castro delivered a farewell to the assembled membership. Now 89, the former president told the congress, “This may be one of the last times I speak in this room,” and urged the party to carry forward the ideals of the Revolution.

In his address to the Party Congress Saturday, President Castro affirmed the country’s commitment to gradual economic change under the guidelines set at the 2011 congress, stating, “When evaluating the pace of transformations underway, we must not lose sight of the fact that in Cuba, we will never allow so-called ‘shock-therapies’ to be applied.”

He explained that the congress will consider a revised proposal for economic reforms for the next five-year period, and noted that just 21 percent of the 313 proposed measures from 2011 have been implemented. The primary stumbling block to the updating of Cuba’s economic model, Castro indicated, is the government itself: “The obstacle that we’ve confronted, just as we expected, is the weight of an obsolete mentality that takes the form of an attitude of inertia,” as the AP reports.

Acknowledging that the party’s leadership is aging, Castro proposed to “guarantee the systemic rejuvenation of the entire system of the Party cadre, from the grassroots,” by setting age limits for party leadership. No one older than 70 would be able to assume a leadership position, leaders would be restricted to two consecutive terms, and 60 would be the maximum age for new members of the Central Committee, The Guardian reports. President Castro and José Ramón Machado Ventura, who is 85, were reelected first and second secretaries of the party, respectively, though Castro stated that the two may cut short their five-year terms. For his part, Castro, now 84, affirmed that he will step down from the presidency in 2018.

President Castro also addressed Cuba’s relations with the United States, remarking that in addition to renewed diplomatic relations, “changes have been occurring in U.S. society, and in the Cuban émigré community, in favor of the modification of the United States’ policy toward Cuba.” He cited U.S. migration policy, regime change programs, and the embargo as continuing obstacles, while warning Cubans to be wary of U.S. intentions.

Some in Cuba expressed frustration with the closed-door process that preceded the meeting. After its conclusion, frustration persists in response to the lack of change in party leadership and agenda, and the party’s plans for continued gradual reform. “I am very upset,” a secretary in Havana told the Financial Times. “The same leaders and the same reforms… Am I supposed to wait till I’m their age to see some real change? Young people are not even listening, they have their minds set on leaving the country.”

Fulton Armstrong, Senior Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, writing for the AULA Blog, explains the key points in Raúl Castro’s speech.

The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson offers his take on the Party Congress and Fidel Castro’s “valedictory” remarks. The final day of the congress, he writes, had a “fin-de-siècle feeling to it,” even as “the message was all about revolutionary continuismo.”

Cuba to cut prices on some consumer goods at hard currency stores, Marc Frank, Reuters

Reuters reports that Cuba’s government will reduce the prices of household goods sold at state-run hard currency outlets. Reuters obtained what appeared to be a leaked Ministry of Finances and Prices document listing products including cooking oil, chicken, hamburger meat and soup as those set for price reductions of between 10 and 30 percent, to be effective Friday, April 22. Although Cuba’s government has not yet publicly or officially announced the measure, according to employees at a Havana supermarket, the government informed stores directly this week, with instructions to prepare the new prices by Friday.

Renowned Cuban pro-reform economist fired as chill sets in, Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press

Cuban economics professor Omar Everleny Pérez was fired this week from his post at the University of Havana. Allegations against the economist include that he shared information with Americans without authorization.

Perez is one of Cuba’s best-known economists, and was a consultant to Cuba’s government as it initiated the country’s economic reforms. The dismissal prohibits Pérez from returning to work for four years. Pérez has appealed the decision. Pavel Vidal, a former colleague of Pérez who now lives in Colombia noted, “The public work of academics has been coming under increasingly greater control.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba sends medical personnel to Ecuador following earthquake, Laura Becquer Paseiro, Granma

Ecuador’s deadly earthquake resulted in the deaths of nearly 600 people, including at least three Cuban doctors. In total 742 Cuban health workers were in Ecuador at the time of the quake. The 7.8-magnitude quake is the largest to hit Ecuador since 1979. Sunday, the day after the initial quake, Cuba deployed a 53-member unit of the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Large-Scale Epidemics to provide assistance, reports Granma

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