Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Fidel Castro Interview in the Atlantic

The Atlantic

In reaction to Jeffrey Golderg's article on conflict between Israel and Iran, Fidel Castro invites the author to Havana to discuss it. An excerpt:

Castro opened our initial meeting by telling me that he read the recent Atlantic article carefully, and that it confirmed his view that Israel and America were moving precipitously and gratuitously toward confrontation with Iran. This interpretation was not surprising, of course: Castro is the grandfather of global anti-Americanism, and he has been a severe critic of Israel. His message to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, he said, was simple: Israel will only have security if it gives up its nuclear arsenal, and the rest of the world's nuclear powers will only have security if they, too, give up their weapons. Global and simultaneous nuclear disarmament is, of course, a worthy goal, but it is not, in the short term, realistic.

Castro's message to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, was not so abstract, however. Over the course of this first, five-hour discussion, Castro repeatedly returned to his excoriation of anti-Semitism. He criticized Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the "unique" history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.

He began this discussion by describing his own, first encounters with anti-Semitism, as a small boy. "I remember when I was a boy - a long time ago - when I was five or six years old and I lived in the countryside," he said, "and I remember Good Friday. What was the atmosphere a child breathed? `Be quiet, God is dead.' God died every year between Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week, and it made a profound impression on everyone. What happened? They would say, `The Jews killed God.' They blamed the Jews for killing God! Do you realize this?"

He went on, "Well, I didn't know what a Jew was. I knew of a bird that was a called a 'Jew,' and so for me the Jews were those birds. These birds had big noses. I don't even know why they were called that. That's what I remember. This is how ignorant the entire population was."

He said the Iranian government should understand the consequences of theological anti-Semitism. "This went on for maybe two thousand years," he said. "I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything." The Iranian government should understand that the Jews "were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world, as the ones who killed God. In my judgment here's what happened to them: Reverse selection. What's reverse selection? Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation." He continued: "The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust." I asked him if he would tell Ahmadinejad what he was telling me. "I am saying this so you can communicate it," he answered.

Read the entire first installment HERE.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Church: Cuba to free dissident, transfer six others


Church: Cuba to free dissident, transfer six others
By David Ariosto, CNN
June 12, 2010 9:42 a.m. EDT

(CNN) -- In the latest sign of compromise between Cuba and church leaders, Cuba's Roman Catholic Church says the government has agreed to free one jailed dissident and relocate six others to prisons closer to their homes.

Ailing political prisoner Ariel Sigler, who has been in jail since a 2003 government crackdown, is set to be freed, the church said late Friday evening.

His release and the six other prisoner transfers follow a series of inmate transfers to prisons closer to their homes announced earlier this month.

The Cuban government could not immediately confirm the transfers.

Earlier in June, the church announced that longtime dissident Diosdado Gonzalez was being moved from a maximum-security prison in Cuba's western Pinar Del Rio province to a prison closer his home in Matanzas province.

He and others were set to be transferred earlier this month, according to a church statement made in early June.

In May, Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, described a rare four-hour meeting with President Raul Castro as a "magnificent start" to talks centered on the potential release of some of the island's jailed dissidents.

Ortega also successfully negotiated an agreement with government authorities last month that allowed a group of women protesters to march.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Silvio Rodriguez: Nostalgia Merchant

Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez is touring the US for the first time in thirty years. Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has an blog post at HuffPo

Silvio Rodriguez: Nostalgia Merchant
Yoani Sanchez

Award-Winning Cuban Blogger
Posted: June 2, 2010 09:52 PM

While young people around the world enjoyed the music of the sixties, for Cubans it was forbidden to hear anything that had imperialist echoes, including the Beatles. Just at that time there appeared in our island what ended up being called the Nueva Trova -- New Minstrel -- Movement. Silvio Rodriguez has been its signature performer with songs full of poetic lyrics and music that mixes the tonalities of our traditional minstrel songs with the chords of Bob Dylan.

Silvio's generation, touched by the euphoric effects of the Revolution, was considered anti-establishment, based on between-the-line meanings one could read into his lyrics. He was banned on some television programs and many of his songs were never broadcast. Little by little, before the eyes of followers and detractors, the Movement was absorbed by the ruling ideological apparatus to the point where there came a time when no political event lacked the accompaniment of his songs. He won admirers and spawned imitators, girls swooned over him, and requests for concerts came from all over Latin America.


The 1980s, when at any hour of the day or night, you could turn the radio dial and hear Silvio's songs, are long gone. In those days he won every popularity contest and seemed like a star whose light would never fade. But the demands of tourism and Cubans' own weariness with protest songs, set the stage for the creation and spread of danceable music which, in all its rawness, is the anthem of these times: reggaeton. While Nueva Trova still has its adherents, it has been relegated to niche audiences.

Today, Silvio Rodriguez is the living representative of nostalgia for a utopia that never materialized. Some of his fans come to his concerts decked out in their Che Guevara T-shirts and sing the choruses as if they could roll back history; it's as if they are saying, "This is not dead." Increasingly rare are those who can reconcile his musical expression with his civic behavior, as few can forgive the many years he has been sitting in parliament without raising his hand to ask for an end to the immigration restrictions, the elimination of the dual currency system, or the decriminalization of political dissent.


Read the full post HERE.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Francisco Aguabella (1925-2010)

Legendary Cuban drummer Francisco Aguabella died today after a battle with cancer. Aguabella was born in the Cuban city of Matanzas on October 10, 1925, the youngest of seven children though only one of two to survive a typhus epidemic. Though neither of his parents were musicians, Francisco began playing music while a child and was drawn to the music that surrounded him in Matanzas. He began to play the sacred batá drums at age twelve, taught by another youngster at the time, the legendary Esteban Vega Bacallao, popularly known as Cha-Chá (1925-2007). According to Raul Fernandez' book From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz, Aguabella apprenticed on the supporting drums for five years (two on okónkolo, three on itótele) before studying the lead drum of this ensemble. He became known as a fierce and powerful drummer in both sacred and secular contexts, becoming, by his own account, the lead soloist for a local comparsa group at age 16, an accomplishment of which he was very proud. At age eighteen Aguabella was initiated into a local Abakuá potencia (an Afro-Cuban male initiation society). During this time he also became friends with drummer Julito Collazo (1925-2004), who would later become, along with Aguabella, an important source of batá drumming in the United States.

In his early twenties Aguabella worked on docks in Havana and Matanzas while continuing to drum during his free time. Eventually he was asked by influential Havana drummers to join their show troupe in Havana. In Havana, Aguabella also played in various sacred, band, and comparsa groups. In 1953 American dancer Katherine Dunham saw Aguabella perform in a nightclub and requested his services for a show scene in a movie (Mambo, starring Shelley Winters and Anthony Quinn)that was being filmed in Havana. Dunham invited Aguabella to join her company, and he soon accompanied her to Italy, the first of many tours. In addition to drumming, Aguabella had small dance and acting roles in the company's productions.

After touring with Dunham, Aguabella came to the United States at a time when Latin music was mixing with popular jazz. While fellow drummer Collazo settled in New york, Aguabella settled in California, living in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the rest of his life. Aguabella had an impressive career, including recordings, performances, and tours with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, Cachao, Lalo Schifrin, Cal Tjader, Nancy Wilson, Poncho Sanchez, Bebo Valdes, Carlos Santana, Malo, Three Dog Night, Paul Simon, and the Doors. (According to Francisco, Sinatra would introduce him to audiences as "My Italian conga drummer, Francisco Aguabella.") Aguabella also led his own Latin jazz group, playing concerts and issuing recordings for many years. He also composed music for his and other ensembles, mostly works that took advantage of his extensive drumming knowledge. Importantly, Aguabella was a source of authentic sacred Afro-Cuban music in the United States at a time when few knew the secrets of sacred drumming. Aguabella was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Durfee Foundation's Master Musicians' Fellowship, and was recognized by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. He was the subject of a documentary film by Les Blank titled "Sworn to the Drum." Agubella taught Afro-Cuban music at UCLA from the mid-1990s until 2008.

Aguabella was the strongest, fiercest drummer I have ever seen. I once saw him play a sacred tambor in the 1980s, though by the time I got to study with him a bit in the 1990s, he had mellowed considerably from his earlier days, when he had the reputation of being a tough taskmaster. I last saw him in late 2008, when the photos below were taken.

Information above was based on Aguabella's own biography, Raul Fernandez' From Afro-Cuban Rhythm to Latin jazz, and personal communication.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tobacco Grower Alejandro Robaina dies at 91

'Godfather' of Cuban tobacco dead at 91
By Shasta Darlington, CNN

Havana, Cuba -- Alejandro Robaina, considered a legend among Cuban tobacco growers, died Saturday, according to Cuban cigar company Habanos S.A., which produced cigars named for him.

Robaina was 91. He was diagnosed with cancer last year and died on his farm in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio, said Habanos spokesman Jose Antonio Candia.

Robaina's tobacco leaves are considered some of the best in the world. In Cuba, he was called "The Godfather." His deeply wrinkled face smiled out from billboards, T-shirts and boxes of Vegas Robaina cigars, among Cuba's finest. A box of premium Vegas Robaina cigars can fetch more than $500 on the international market.

But the man behind the smile was also a simple country farmer who got up at the crack of dawn every day to survey his fields until cancer slowed him down.

"I wouldn't say I've triumphed, but I've done something with my life," he told CNN in 2008. "The first thing is to love the land, take care of the land."

Robaina's family have farmed tobacco continuously since 1845 on the plantation. Under Robaina, business flourished, and the plantation had some of the best yields in the region, producing highly-prized wrapper leaves used for the outer layer of cigars.

Cigar aficionados around the globe called him the dean of Cuba's cigar industry and every year thousands of visitors made the two-hour trek from Havana, hoping to share a stogie and a glass of rum with "the Don."

Robaina kept his lands even when many ranches were nationalized after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

"I had a very strong conversation with Fidel 18 or 20 years ago," Robaina said in 2008. "He asked if I would join a big cooperative since I had so many workers, and I told him no.

"For me tobacco growing had to be in the family, done with love. Because in the big cooperatives, everyone's the boss, nobody worries as much as the grower."

Now, almost all of Cuba's tobacco farms are private, according to the Agriculture Ministry. And they generally take their lead from Robaina, planting and harvesting on the same days he did.

"I like to sow during a waxing moon, and harvest in a waning moon," he said.

Robaina said he'd been smoking cigars since he was 10 years old. "When I get really old, I'll stop smoking the strong stuff," he said.

In 1997, Cuba launched the Vegas Robaina brand, named in his honor. They're made from the golden wrapper leaves grown on Robaina's plantation but are rolled in a separate factory.

Like most of Cuba's cigars, they're largely exported. Because of the U.S. trade embargo, however, Cuban cigars are off-limits in America.

Robaina said in 2008 he hoped that policy would end during his lifetime.

"Of course I have hope they'll open up the market," he said. "Cuba's willing to send cigars and they're willing to smoke them. They're going crazy because they can't smoke cigars from here."

Robaina will be buried Sunday, said Candia.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez (1915-2010)

NYT has an obituary of the famous Graciela:

April 9, 2010
Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez, Afro-Cuban Singer, Dies at 94

Graciela Peréz-Gutierrez, known professionally as Graciela, one of the great voices in Afro-Cuban music, died on Wednesday in Manhattan, where she lived. She was 94.

The cause was renal and pulmonary failure, said Mappy Torres, her friend and assistant.

For 32 years, Graciela sang with a band formed by her foster brother, Machito, whose real name was Frank Grillo.

Many of Graciela’s most famous appearances on records, including “Que Me Falta,” “Vive Como Yo,” “Ay José” and “Si Si No No,” were swoons and flirtations, from coy to outrageous. She was a forthright performer, singing with a clear and powerful alto voice; she could make it soft, then expand it into a clipped vibrato or a ragged shout.

Graciela and Machito, both raised by Graciela’s parents in Havana, were each established professional singers before they teamed up in New York in 1943.

In Cuba, Graciela had been singing with the all-female Orquesta Anacaona and El Trio Garcia and had traveled to New York, South America and Europe. Machito had moved from Havana to New York City in 1937, recorded with the Orchestra Siboney and Xavier Cugat, and ultimately formed the Afro-Cubans with the trumpeter Mario Bauzá, a group that helped galvanize the mambo and Latin-jazz movements.

When Machito was drafted into the United States Army in 1943, Bauzá sent for Graciela, eight years Machito’s junior, to join the Afro-Cubans. She was the band’s lead singer for a year before Machito’s return. From then through the 1950s, with the two lead singers trading off vocal turns and Graciela clicking through the rhythm pattern with her wooden claves, the band established a high standard for the mambo orchestra.

The Afro-Cubans played to integrated audiences at the Palladium, Town Hall, the Apollo, the 52nd Street jazz clubs, the Concord Hotel in the Catskills and the Crescendo nightclub in Hollywood, among other places.

Graciela left the Afro-Cubans in 1975 but rejoined with Bauzá’s own band, first in 1976 on “La Botanica” and then during the 1990s in his career’s 11th-hour revival.

Graciela was never married and had no immediate surviving family members. She died, Ms. Torres said, with her claves in her hands.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Silfredo La O Paints and Dances to the Music of the Afro-Cuban Oricha

A cool event on April 3, 2010, the debut of a space in downtown San Diego called The Salon. Cuban dancer, painter, and drummer Silfredo La O danced and painted to the music of the oricha as performed on batá drums and voice. Photos and video by Kevin Delgado.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Elian Gonzalez update

Elian Gonzalez attends Cuba Youth Meeting

First Posted: 04- 5-10 05:04 PM | Updated: 04- 5-10 05:41 PM

Read More: Cuba, Cuba Communists, Elian, Elian Gonzales, Elian Gonzales Photos, World News

(AP) HAVANA — Cuba has released photos of one-time exile cause celebre Elian Gonzalez wearing an olive-green military school uniform and attending a Young Communist Union congress.

Gonzalez, now 16 with closely cropped black hair, is shown serious-faced with fellow youth delegates during last weekend's congress at a sprawling and drab convention center in western Havana. The images were posted Monday on Cuban government Web sites, then widely picked up by electronic, state-controlled media.

When he was 5, Elian was found floating off the coast of Florida in an inner tube after his mother and others fleeing Cuba drowned trying to reach the U.S. Elian's father, who was separated from his mother, had remained in Cuba.

U.S. immigration officials ruled the boy should return to Cuba over the objections of his Miami relatives and other Cuban exiles, creating a national furor that caused even presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore to weigh in on the matter.

His relatives refused to give him up. Federal agents raided the Little Havana home of his uncle with guns drawn 10 years ago this month and seized the boy from a closet to return him to his father.

Elian was celebrated as a hero in Cuba upon his return and his father, restaurant employee Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was elected to parliament – a seat he retains today.

Cuba usually marks Gonzalez's birthday every Dec. 7 with parades and other local events, but such activities are not open to foreign reporters.

Gonzalez formally joined the Young Communist Union in 2008, making headlines across Cuba.

The green uniform with red shoulder patches he is seen wearing is common among island military academies. There is a military school in the city of Matanzas, near the boy's hometown of Cardenas, but it was unclear where he is attending school. Reports in state media provided no details.

"Young Elian Gonzalez defends his revolution in the youth congress," read the headline over Monday's photo posted on Cuba Debate, the same Web site where Fidel Castro has posted his regular essays since ceding power to his younger brother, Raul, for health reasons in 2006.

Revolution is what Cubans call the rebellion that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959.

Elian and his father are closely watched by state authorities, who restrict their contact with the international press.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Buena Vista: Cuban band or brand?

Of course, it's both: quality nostalgia guaranteed.

Buena Vista: Cuban band or brand?

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Sunday night in Old Havana and dozens of tourists pack into a club on a corner of the colonial Plaza Vieja to hear the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Leading the night's entertainment is 67-year-old "sonero" Felix Baloy and his big band. Looking dapper in his white suit and white fedora hat, he produces a pulsating evening of traditional rhythms and songs.

Felix Baloy sang on several of the early Buena Vista albums and can now use the name on his billboards. The original band has turned into a brand.

"Buena Vista Social Club has transformed into several bands, including mine," he said.

"I play traditional Cuban music and will continue doing so until the day I die."

'Sound of Cuba'

For many around the world, Buena Vista is the sound that defines Cuban music.

“ Members of the band may change because some have passed away, but the spirit lives on ”
Omara Portuondo Original Buena Vista singer

You can hear songs like Chan Chan played on almost every street corner in the tourist centre of Old Havana.

Yet in Cuba, these are considered "golden oldies". At home, Buena Vista must compete with everything from salsa to reggaeton and the folk ballads of revolutionary idols like Silvio Rodriguez.

"This is such a musical country with so many different rhythms; young people have gone their own way," Mr Baloy says.

"You still hear it here, but for the rest of the world, Buena Vista remains the sound of Cuba."

The original Buena Vista Social Club was a loose collective of ageing musicians brought together by the American guitarist Ry Cooder in 1997, in a bid to re-discover the music of Cuba's pre-revolutionary past.

Since then many of those who shot to stardom in the award-winning film have died, including pianist Ruben Gonzalez and the singer Ibrahim Ferrer.

New generation

It is Ibrahim Ferrer's former band which has taken over the official mantle and today tours the world with a mix of old and new faces, under the name Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club.

Apart from an occasional concert in the beachfront hotel resort of Varadero, the band almost never performs at home.

'Trade mark'

Buena Vista has turned into a project rather than a band.

"It's been converted into a trade mark. A lot of the well-known figures who were in Buena Vista have developed their own bands; that's where the spirit of Buena Vista lies," said Mr Valdes.

Today, this 63-year-old drummer still lives in the same modest Havana apartment in which he grew up.

On the walls of his tiny living room are framed gold disks, along with a fading black-and-white photograph of his father - a clarinettist in an early Cuban big band.

There is also a glamorous colour photo of his daughter, Idania, who has taken over as the lead female singer touring the world with the Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club. She was just 20 when she joined it.

"It was a little unnerving at first, especially stepping in for such a famous name," she admits.

Cuban diva

Omara Portuondo is one of the only original Buena Vista superstars who remains hugely popular at home.

The 79-year-old diva is regularly invited to perform at major cultural and political events.

At a recent Alba summit of left-wing Latin American leaders, the closing ceremony saw Omara singing her way across the platform; Venezuela's Hugo Chavez blew her kisses, Cuba's President Raul Castro reached out and kissed her hand.

She was also the first Cuban musician to be granted a visa to perform in the United States after President Barack Obama ended restrictions on cultural exchanges.

Her most recent album won a Latin Grammy, which she was able to collect in person at the award ceremony in Las Vegas.

Her repertoire has expanded beyond the classic Buena Vista sounds but the band and the music, she believes, will always live on.

"This type of music will always be with us. It's still the Buena Vista sound; members of the band may change because some have passed away but the spirit lives on."

Read the complete story HERE.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cuban prison hunger striker dies


Cuban prison hunger striker dies

Leading Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo has died in hospital after 85 days on hunger strike, opposition sources say.

Mr Zapata, 42, had been admitted to Havana's Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital after his condition deteriorated.

Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience after his arrest in March 2003 in a crackdown on opposition groups.

He had been calling for the release of political prisoners.

He died between 1530 and 1600 local time (2030-2100 GMT) on Tuesday, Efe news agency reports.


His death marks the first time in nearly 40 years a Cuban activist starved himself to death to protest against government abuses.

His mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, told the Miami newspaper El Nuevo Herald by telephone that her son had been "murdered" by Cuba's authorities.

"They managed to do what they wanted," she said. "They ended the life of a fighter for human rights.''

According to the paper, the last political prisoner to die on hunger strike in Cuba was Pedro Luis Boitel, a poet and student leader, who died in 1972.

Cuba's illegal but tolerated Human Rights Commission says there are about 200 political prisoners still held in Cuba, about one-third less than when Raul Castro took over as president from his brother Fidel.

But if anything harassment of dissidents has increased over the past year, the group says.

Cuba designates prisoners of conscience as mercenaries sympathetic to the United States.

Friday, January 08, 2010


In the Moscow Times:

THE SANTERIA HOUSE OF MOSCOW (La Casa del Santo) is a nonsectarian social association of worshippers who are interested in Santeria (Afro-Cuban religion). We have several celebrations and spiritual activities related to our Orishas (gods). Our place is at Ul. Klimashkina Bldg. 22, M. Ulitsa 1905 Goda. Contact Carlos A. Reyes, e-mail: Phone: +7-963-616-3498.