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Dateline, Cuba's Key Change

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Cuba conjures up vivid images. It’s either the Castros' socialist paradise... or a totalitarian nightmare, depending on your politics, but it’s still doggedly holding out against American capitalism. So this was probably the most unlikely event I could have ended up at on my very first night in Cuba.

BOY (Translation): We are here at an event where the boys will compete, and the winner will represent Cuba.

It’s a breakdancing competition cum youth marketing event run by the multinational beverage giant, Red Bull.

MAN (Translation): So the first to win twice will go through as the winner…

It might seem like a cynical branding exercise, but somehow in Cuba it feels genuinely underground. Advertising is virtually non-existent here because it’s banned by the government. And these kids aren’t used to even modest corporate largesse.

MAN (Translation): The floor is slippery, but that’s ok. We can go on because we’re Cuban. We’ve survived difficulties like shredded soy meat so let’s go.

The music turns out to be unapologetically American. For decades after the revolution anything from the US was viewed with suspicion or hostility and while many older Cubans still feel that way, this crowd is not afraid of flying the flag for the former enemy. Tonight is just a tiny taste of the commercialisation that might soon engulf Cuba and change its unique way of life forever but when I ask around, these young people aren’t concerned.

MAN (Translation): Cuba deserves these kinds of activities. Cuba will improve because it is a good island where we deserve development and to move forward. Cuba is the enchanted island.

Cuba may be enchanted to some but it’s certainly not rich. Everyone here gets free healthcare and education, plus government subsidies for food, housing and transport. The trade-off is the majority of people work in government jobs that pay just $30 a month. Not much to spend. Part of the problem is the strict trade embargo imposed by America for the past five decades.

DR ALFREDO LEYVA DE VARONA, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY, PANAMA: The Cuban Government has used the embargo as a weapon, let’s say against the United States. We’re this little island and there’s this embargo that doesn’t allow us, so everyone wants to see how we can move Cuba towards change. The thing is - how much is it going to be possible?

Before the thaw was revealed, President Raul Castro had already been taking baby steps towards capitalism.

DR ALFREDO LEYVA DE VARONA: For example - the only private enterprise that was allowed for any Cubans was to have a little small restaurant at home. In fact they limited the restaurant to 12 chairs, they couldn't hire anyone that was from outside of the family, and now they're allowed a bigger size.

Until recently ordinary Cubans couldn’t own cars made after 1959 but now all cars can be freely traded by everyone and there are also bigger projects like a new harbour and free trade zone. But it’s the prospect of America dropping its embargo that’s triggered a gold rush of investors from Europe and China.

DR ERNESTO LOPEZ, HAVANA UNIVERSITY: The countries have been coming and trying to fill the spaces before the US actually opens the Cuban market, so it is the first visible outcome of these measures are not coming from the United States

There are other openings too. Air BnB has started up and new charter flights. Internet access, though, is still expensive, slow and restricted to a tiny percentage of the population, which limits the influence of the outside world but now that too may start to change. Something ordinary people like musician Tanmy are excited to see.

TANMY, MUSICIAN (Translation): I think it will happen but yes, there was a big barrier and now it’s a way to be to commercialise.

DR ERNESTO LOPEZ: There is a social structure that is changing with the creation of this sector of owners, of small size and mid-size businesses.

All these changes are not only seen as opportunities, though, they’re also making people anxious about losing Cuba’s extensive social safety net.

TANMY (Translation): We are opening the doors whilst trying not to hurt everything that we've gained so far with the principles of our country. To open ourselves up to the huge changes that are coming, we need to take our time.

Whether the flurry of change is going to lead to political freedoms is hard to know. Down on the famous Malecon seafront I come across a sculpture exhibition. The government here is a big supporter of the arts and a degree of free speech is increasingly tolerated but only up to a point. Explicit criticisms of the regime can still land you in jail. But some artists still find ways to make a point - thanks to music.

Music is everywhere in Cuba. More than any country I’ve ever visited, its one of the nation’s proudest exports but its lyrics can also put provocative opinions out into the open. In his 73 years Giovanni Del Pino Rodriguez has seen a lot of changes. He’s part of Cuba’s old guard, he’s even met Fidel Castro himself after a gig.

GIOVANNI DEL PINO RODRIGUEZ (Translation): He called me over and asked me to have a photo with him. And I said “Of course, Comandante”.

When I talk to Giovanni about the thaw with the US he sounds hopeful at first but it’s tempered by memories of the wearying Cold War hostilities of the past.

GIOVANNI DEL PINO RODRIGUEZ (Translation): I think it will be positive for both peoples… for the Cubans as much as Americans. We have both been engaged in low-grade politics for a long time and in dirty propaganda over the years.

Cuba’s younger generation however are much more focused on the future. Rapper Barbaro El Urbano Vargas is constantly testing the limits of the law with his lyrics.

BARBARO EL URBANO VARGAS, RAPPER (Translation): They would trust us more if we spoke less. Speak more. The good is overcoming the bad…. Most of the themes in my music are social, relating to my personal story and my neighbours' stories. Issues such as domestic violence, police abuse, racism, and my concerns with some government decisions.

Barbaro lives in this poor neighbourhood. He reckons there’s a big generation gap here, with older people slow to acknowledge Cuba’s domestic problems.


BARBARO EL URBANO VARGAS (Translation): We are willing to fight against the things we don't agree with. My generation, since we started having social awareness, we started to realise that things were wrong. Our parent’s generation have now started to realise the changes and things that are wrong.

Barbaro’s confrontational approach makes him a target for the authorities and his neighbours are wary of my camera, something I come across many times in Cuba.

WOMAN (Translation): No, not the kids. Because then the world is going to… not the kids.

Barbaro plays up to their worst fears - that the neighbourhood’s socialist committee will seek them out.

WOMAN (Translation): And they’ll come and get all of you. Hitting you guys with fists you know.

They’re laughing, but it’s not clear how funny it is.

BARBARO EL URBANO VARGAS (Translation): I am on the opposition side so it is very complicated, it’s very complicated because they block me from all the outlets, it’s not promoted, it's not on TV, it’s not on the radio.

Barbaro has performed with Cuba’s most esteemed musicians and attracts a big audience… but he can’t get a break on the national media. I’m curious how the system keeps Barbaro’s music off the airwaves. Broadcasting here is all state-run, so I make a visit to the national radio station, Radio Havana. The station director, Magda Resik, assures me that nothing so crude as censorship takes place here.

MAGDA RESIK, RADIO HAVANA: No, it never happened. Our music institutions, they have a specialist and they advise us about the kinds of music that we have to play, but it's not in a censorship way, it's in an advised way and giving us a very good Cuban music.

Despite that system, DVDs and thumb drives are making it hard for the regime to keep as much control over what Cuban’s see and hear, as they once did. Back in the analogue days, a young man named Silvio Rodriguez rose to become a musical ambassador for the revolution.

SILVIO ‘EL LIBRE” RODRIGUEZ, RAPPER (Translation): Absurd to believe that paradise is only the equality, good laws.

Silvio’s now known as the ‘John Lennon’ of Latin America - a socialist icon who still sells out giant stadiums. He helped create a Cuban musical culture that tackles big ideas - but he could never have guessed the way that would come to divide his own family. In Tampa, Florida, Silvio’s son Silvito El Libre is at work. He’s a musician singing a very different song to his father.

SILVITO RODRIGUEZ (Translation): Immoral prices and the ‘shit’ they sell you and the food that isn’t enough to even feed an elf. Cruel Havana that provokes nostalgia in those from afar, Let’s not kneel to a fucked regime.

Unfortunately Silvito El Libre and his collaborators, got them caught up in the decades long cold war between Havana and Washington. This music festival Silvito took part in in Cuba four years ago looks like an innocent party, turns out it was being secretly funded by the US Agency for International Development in an attempt to foster grassroots opposition to the Cuban Government. As these documents show, financial support they thought was coming from a Serbian media group was actually being funnelled via a Panamanian shell company from the US Government and Silvito was tangled up in it.


DR ERNESTO LOPEZ: Under Cuban law to do something against the government while being paid by any foreign government is a crime against the national security.

Silvito says he knew nothing about the secret plan.

SILVITO RODRIGUEZ (Translation): They wanted to discredit us, like they’ve always hoped for. When people from other countries come to Cuba to invest in different projects nobody make any noise about it because Cuba accepts money from many different countries. Now there is a huge storm in a teacup over this silliness. And they know that it is.

Warmer relations between Washington and Havana might see an end to their long history of covert operations but it’ll be too late for Silvito, he’s no longer allowed to perform anywhere in Cuba. But he can play elsewhere. When Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama met face to face in Panama earlier this year it was hailed as a major turning point.

PRESIDENT BARAK OBAMA: Better relations between the United States and Cuba will create new opportunities for cooperation across our region.

The Cuban government brought out Silvio Rodriguez to perform for the big occasion.

SILVIO RODRIGUEZ (Translation): Buenos noches, Panama.

But meanwhile across town a hip hop concert was underway featuring none other than Silvio’s son, Silvito El Libre.

SILVITO RODRIGUEZ (Translation): With my concept for myself, I drive my own fate. In the light of the sun, I’m not scared, shoot your love.


It’s a highly unusual father/son rap battle… with different generations in the one family lining up on opposing sides. Outside the concert one of Cuba’s most famous anti-censorship activists, Guillermo Farinas, laid out his fears to me.

GUILLERMO FARINAS, CUBAN DISSIDENT (Translation): We need to demand changes from the Cuban government in the political sphere, because otherwise we’ll have a mix of what happened in China, and in Russia and Egypt and that mix is the one that will happen. The ones who are in power now are going to have power later but with money in their pockets because the capitalists will give it to them. That’s what we need to avoid.

To press their case in front of international media, the dissidents are also holding a conference on the sidelines of the President’s Summit. not long ago, these people would never have been allowed to leave Cuba to attend a conference like this. So the fact they’re here at all shows that things are changing for the better. Even so, most of these people continue to experience harassment and worse for speaking their mind.

DAVID OMNI, RAPPER (Translation): We have come all this way and have risked a lot, hoping that it will be worth it in the end. I have a 5 year old boy so of course I am risking a lot. My parents and my family fear for what might happen to me and that's the only thing that worries me.

David Omni is another performer blacklisted by his government.

DAVID OMNI, SONG (Translation): How many ‘knowisms’, capitalism, communism. They want to separate us but in the end we're all the same.

Like Guillermo Farinas he’s not so optimistic about the future.

DAVID OMNI: For military people have all the power in Cuba and in business, and big houses and its good but the people they have nothing.

Back in Cuba, my government-approved local fixer - a former diplomat - reluctantly agrees to take me to catch up with David Omni. It’s a Saturday afternoon and David’s holding an artist’s salon in his front yard.

DAVID OMNI (Translation): Cuba, Cubans, Cubanese... grow some balls now.

The criticisms are not specific - names like Castro are never spoken - but the meanings are all too clear and when David finally takes the stage himself, the atmosphere is electric.

DAVID OMNI, SONG (Translation): In the name of liberty prisons are created, they invent enemies, they increase controls. Everything ends the same, misery, adversity, censorship, impunity, spiritual poverty. Why you never stop? You never stop, you never stop, my friend.

With Cuba opening up, the authorities are now at a crossroads in how they deal with critics like David and it’s hard to know which way they’ll jump. Long jail sentences for dissidents are getting rarer but according to human rights groups, the number of short-term detentions nearly tripled last year.

DR ALFREDO LEYVA DE VARONA: All these small groups trying to open up some space are constantly harassed, repressed. Sometimes they allow them some expression and then without notice.

DAVID OMNI (Translation): So a friend of mine is in prison. His name is Esesto, he is in prison because he produced art that the government here didn’t like.

Opinions like David’s are so outside the Cuban mainstream that my local fixer tells me he can’t associate with these people any further and leaves. With no translator David and I make the best of it.

REPORTER: Was that fun?

DAVID OMNI: Yeah, I feel good mate. All my friends is here today.

It’s really hard to believe that a backyard salon like this could be a threat to the government but for now these are the contested limits of free speech in Cuba. One thing is clear about the changes though - it’s making friendly neighbours out of Cold War enemies. On a Sunday afternoon the sounds of a choir warming up echo from this 17th century church, inside it turns out to be young Americans from LA. They’re preparing to sing alongside a Cuban ensemble. Collaborations like this used to be rare, but with the new thaw they’re coming thick and fast.

LEONOR SUAREZ DULZAIDES, CHOIR DIRECTOR (Translation): I think this means something very spiritual for the peoples of the twocountries. The American people have always been in favour of relations with Cuba.

It seems people are keen to let bygones be bygones. One of the visiting choirboys was struck by a shopkeeper’s reply when he asked if Americans had a bad reputation.

MILAN MOSSE, CHOIR SINGER: Her response was really sweet - she said no, the embargo is killing us. Americans are fine but their laws are really hurting us and it was kind of bittersweet because it was nice to hear that we could be distinguished from our laws in some ways, but also kind of sad that we are responsible.

In the Plaza of the Revolution more and more tourists are turning up to take happy snaps under the watchful gaze of Cuba’s national heroes. It makes me wonder how Cuban culture will withstand the tidal wave of Americans and their media that’s headed their way.

MAGDA RESIK: I’m not worried because we have an open mind, we open all our doors and our culture is very strong and I don’t believe in North American colonization of our way to being Cubans.

The Cuban government is aiming for a slow and steady thaw with the United States but whatever changes are about to hit from across the Florida Straits, ordinary Cubans are eager to try playing a new tune.

MAN (Translation): Well, I think they should have done that years ago. We are born and we’ll die one day. That ambition we had for the world did not work for us. It’s better to have peace than war.