August 3, 2007
In Cultural Haven, Cubans Need Not Choose Sides
By MIRTA OJITO
MADRID — This is surely not the only city in the world where a handful of Cubans can spend a day together and avoid talking politics. But it is certainly the preferred one for Cuban artists and intellectuals of all political stripes, who find the freedom here that they could never have in Havana and the opportunities that may elude them in Miami, both polarizing cities in the endless debate about Fidel Castro and the nature of exile.
To wit: In a nondescript musical studio here recently, two Cubans who for years were separated by politics got together to record an album and announce their first joint concert tour of Spain. They were the legendary pianist Bebo Valdés, 88, who left Cuba in 1960 and has vowed not to return until there is a democratic government in place, and his son, the jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, 65, who keeps a home in Havana and still informs the Cuban Ministry of Culture of his artistic whereabouts.
With two Cuban exiles from Miami, the producer Nat Chediak and his wife, Conchita Espinosa, and a Cuban-American filmmaker, Carlos Carcas, who was raised in Miami and lives in Madrid, they talked mostly about music, not an unusual scene in a city that has become a welcoming neutral ground for the great many Cuban artists and intellectuals who live here.
“Madrid has been one of the few places in the world where they have been able to find a breather,” Mr. Chediak said.
Cultural expressions — from literature to music — that cannot possibly take place in Havana because of government censorship and may be difficult to negotiate in Miami because of the fervent politics of some Cuban exiles, are finding an outlet and an audience in the country many Cubans still call, and not always in jest, la madre patria, the mother country.
The reasons vary, and range from Cuba’s shared heritage and language with Spain to the fact that for many Cubans, Havana and Miami continue to be the two extremes of a political spectrum that forces Cubans to define themselves by making only one, but crucial, decision: the rejection or acceptance of the Castro brothers’ government by opting for exile or staying on the island. Miami begs the question; Madrid accepts ambiguity.
“In Cuba and Miami, there is no middle ground,” said Boris Larramendi, 37, one of the lead musicians of Habana Abierta, a group that has already released three albums in Madrid and has played both in Cuba and Miami. “Here you can feel somewhat distant from both extremes and take certain positions that would be difficult to maintain in Havana or Miami, particularly in Cuba, where I know that if I said the things I say here, I’d be jailed.”
Cuban performers and intellectuals who live in Madrid say they do not necessarily reject the option of living in South Florida. Spain has simply become an increasingly easier country to get to because the Cuban government is more lenient with exit permits to Europe than to the United States. Those who decide to stay here find a welcoming attitude because of the familiar ties that for generations have bound the two countries together.
Washington’s policies, too, have contributed to the mushrooming presence of Cuban intellectuals here. While a decade ago, under President Clinton, Cuban academics and artists freely traveled to cities like New York, Chicago and Miami, and returned to the island, or not, the Bush administration has severely curtailed such cultural exchanges. They are happening, instead, in Spain’s universities, cafes and concert halls.
It is difficult to determine who among the Cubans here intends to stay or is just passing through. Kelvis Ochoa, one of the lead musicians of Habana Abierta, for example, is now in Cuba. Mr. Larramendi said he did not know if Mr. Ochoa planned to return or stay. He has not asked.
Some writers and musicians say they will never live in Cuba again under the Castro government; others are reluctant to commit publicly to any political position for fear they will not be allowed to return to their families on the island. The result is a revolving door of Cuban intellectuals and artists.
“Here, what’s important is your work, not your biography,” said Antonio José Ponte, a 42-year-old Cuban writer who has lived in Madrid for one year. “In a city like Miami people want to know who you are, what you think, when you left. They want to know who they are talking to. Here, the outlines are fuzzier.”
Yet, Mr. Ponte said he understood that eagerness to know: “It’s the nature of the altered and confusing state of being an exile.” The increasing importance of Spain in Cuba’s cultural life is the newest twist in the relations between the countries. In the 19th century, when Cubans were waging war against Spain to obtain their independence, rebels were sent here as punishment. Later, many Spaniards escaping the civil war here found refuge in Cuba. And, in the 1960s, Cuban refugees fleeing Castro found haven here, but the majority eventually moved to Miami or Puerto Rico. Now, for those eager to have close contact with Cuban artists and thinkers, Madrid has become a necessary stop.
“It’s been an accidental and slow process,” said Raúl Rivero, who left Cuba for Madrid in the spring of 2005, after two years of imprisonment for his work as an independent journalist and dissident.
Even if they could travel to Miami, many artists and intellectuals choose to stay here for “practical reasons.” They have the backing of publishing houses, art galleries and even the film and television industry, in a country where the Spanish-language market is not a niche business, but the only one.
Yet, Mr. Rivero said going to Miami was a problem for Cuban intellectuals and artists who were simply passing through because the Cuban government scrutinized those visits.
Some artists, like Chucho Valdés, have reached such heights of popularity and professional achievement that they have much more freedom than younger, emerging artists. Mr. Valdés informs the Cuban Cultural Ministry of where he performs, but he does not seek permission, he said.
He would be eager to play in Havana with his father, he said. Then he paused. “But I don’t know if Bebo will be willing to go. That’s a different story.”
His father said there was no reason for him to return to Cuba.
“If the regime changes and there is a constitution and I don’t have to ask permission from anyone to return to my own country, then I’ll go back and play,” he said. “And that would be a joyful day.”