Cuban music icon Silvio Rodriguez challenges state censorship

Marc Frank
Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez performs during a concert in Havana
Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez performs during a concert in Havana September 10, 2010. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The best known musician in Cuba and a staunch supporter of the island's communist revolution, Silvio Rodriguez, has challenged state censorship by inviting a recently sanctioned colleague to join him at two concerts this weekend on the Caribbean island.

Jazz musician Robertico Carcasses shocked authorities last week when he called for direct presidential elections, freedom of information and tolerance of dissent. He spoke out during a televised mega-concert to demand the return of four Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States 15 years ago.

The Ministry of Culture, which controls music venues and all recording, responded by banning Carcasses and his jazz-fusion group, Interactivo, from state venues until further notice, touching off a debate among artists and intellectuals on social media.

Rodriguez's invitation to Carcasses to perform represents perhaps the most serious challenge in decades to the state's control of culture and thought.

"I took the decision to do this precisely in the next two concerts, after learning that he had been sanctioned with an indefinite suspension from concerts and other public activities sponsored by the ministry," Rodriguez said in his blog, Segunda Cita (Second Meeting), on Tuesday.

"I do not agree with the excessive sanction of barring a musician from doing his work," Rodriguez said.

Soon after Rodriguez extended the invitation, the ministry met with Carcasses and his band. Rodriguez said on his blog on Wednesday that the ministry was expected to lift the sanction on Carcasses but there was no official word. The controversy has not been mentioned by state-run media.

Despite his gesture of support for Carcasses, Rodriguez was sharply critical of what he termed Carcasses' "stupidity."

"As a Cuban citizen Robertico has the right to say what he thinks," he wrote. "I would have preferred that he would do this in another concert, in a record, somewhere else, because the struggle for the freedom of the (agents) is sacred to the Cuban people."

Carcasses, in a statement issued after his suspension, stuck to his guns, repeating his words at the concert, but he apologized if he had caused further pain to the families of the agents and for not consulting fellow band members before speaking up.

"I want ... free access to information so I can have my own opinion. Elect the president by direct vote and not another way ... Neither militant nor dissident, all Cubans with the same rights," were some of the forbidden words uttered by Carcasses in improvised lyrics.

The Communist Party is the only legal party in Cuba and presidents are elected by a single chamber parliament.

The concert where Carcasses made his comments was staged in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, culminating a day of support activities to bring the Cuban agents home.

The agents were sentenced to long prison terms in the United States for spying on violence-prone exiles and U.S. military bases in Florida.

Carcasses' protest and the state's response has touched off a controversy in Cuba reminiscent of that which followed the black power salute of Afro-American athletes during the 1968 Olympic Games.

Artists and intellectuals appear nearly unanimous in their criticism of Carcasses's choice of time and place to make his statement, while most also have expressed disagreement with his suspension.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)