Blockaded from the birthday party

They were all there. Over 40 of the best known singers and players of people’s songs performed May 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York. They were celebrating the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, who sings songs to bring people together.

Well, almost all.

Silvio Rodriguez, the famous Cuban singer and songwriter, was not. He did not board a plane from Paris to New York because the U.S. State Department had not responded to his visa application.

Rodriguez is one of the pioneers of Nueva Trova (New Song movement), also known as Nueva Canción, a pan-Latin American, socially conscious (like folk music) music movement.

The New Song movement started in Argentina with Atahualpa Yupanqui, and spread to Chile with Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, and swept the rest of Latin America in the 1960s. Rodriguez is a Nueva Trova icon throughout the world and is known for his eloquent and symbolic lyrics. Rodriguez and Seeger had performed together and have a long relationship.

Rodriguez explained to Seeger in a written message: “I tried to return to be with you, but as you well know, the ones that don’t want the United States and Cuba to be together, sing together, talk, and understand each other didn’t let me arrive.”

Rodriguez recalled a drive with Seeger to Poughkeepsie one “frozen night” in February 1980. He reminded Seeger of a shared singing tour in Italy dedicated to martyred Chilean singer Jara.

Pete Seeger visited and sang in Cuba five times. His singing of “Guantanamera” welcomed generations of North Americans to solidarity with Cuba. Seeger’s version of that song, with words from Cuban hero Jose Marti, became Cuba’s unofficial national anthem.

Rodriguez continued: “Not only I, dear Pete,” but my whole country “admires you, respects you, and celebrates your honor-filled nine decades of defending social justice, peace, and culture.”

Rodriguez also said, “The attitude of the State Department is very much at odds with the desire expressed by President Obama for a rapprochement with Cuba.

“As a Cuban cultural worker,” he added, “I keep feeling as blockaded and discriminated against as by other administrations.”

Bill Martinez, a member of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange and attorney who assisted Rodriguez in the visa process, expressed his disappointment with the failed request.

“While we appreciate that security clearances are a necessary part of the visa process, and that clearances were made at some levels, the bottom line is that the extraordinary processing of Cuban artists has once again resulted in a delay without any logical basis,” said Martinez.

He added, “Delay is tantamount to denial. The State Department has failed Silvio Rodriguez, and also thousands of North American fans that would have loved to see him perform at the benefit concert with Pete Seeger.”

“We continue to call on the Obama administration to open doors to Cuban artists, intellectuals and other professionals so that full cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba becomes a reality,” Martinez concluded.

Over 1,300 people in the U.S. arts and culture field have signed a letter to Obama from the U.S.-Cuban Cultural Exchange calling on the administration to:

1. Open a respectful dialogue with the government and people of Cuba in accord with established protocols supported by the community of nations.

2. End the travel ban that prevents U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba, and allow for Cuban artists and scholars to visit the United States, thus eliminating the censorship of art and ideas, and;

3. Initiate, by working with the U.S. Congress, a process that can result in the development of normal, respectful bilateral relations between our countries.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.