An Interview With Silvio Rodríguez on his Music, Life & his Support for the Campaign to Award Cuban Doctors the Nobel Peace Prize

After being cured by a Cuban doctor, a farmer from a Latin American country related that what had impressed him most was that “Cuba did not offer what it had left over, but shared what it had.”

The above anecdote was related by a Cuban who has for decades shared beautiful graphemes harmonized in an ethereal palette of colors, songs with which he has painted ideas, thoughts, and introspections on the canvas of life.

Silvio Rodríguez: A piece of music is a piece of energy that a human materializes and shares with others. There are many types but all, in some way, have their audience. Sometimes songs that don’t have an audience create one. For me, composing is a game; it’s like when they took me to the park as a child: hours of wonder. Then comes the workshop, the rational, what (Igor) Stravinsky spoke of in his memorable lectures. However, this is a science in which there is also a lot of space, especially if one is not one of those who are satisfied with the first idea, but likes to investigate the many variants that arise from an inspiration. So, instead of “killing and salting,” I prefer to get complicated. I’m not in a hurry to put an end to it. Many songs stay in a kind of limbo waiting for me to say goodbye, until one day, sometimes years later, we meet again and I rediscover them. Then I include them in a concert or an album.

The man who we are speaking of, when he was very young, drew comics in a magazine, but gave up the pencil and brush, and also abandoned his piano studies, to pick up a guitar. When he was 20 years old he decided that beautiful writing could save the world together with that companion: his guitar, “which has accompanied me most of my life,” as Rodriguez says. “However, I have been inattentive to her, forgetful, but never ungrateful. She knows me and I think she not only puts up with me but even spoils me, because when I come back after my absences she continues to make me fall in love”.

Juan José Olivares: Each creator has a unique process.

Silvio Rodríguez: I don’t have an algorithm. Sometimes I need time to cover everything. One day I discovered a theme in an essay. I abandoned it and went home. Two other topics came out of that one, but it took me three months to expand on the connections. Once that was solved, the piece was ready in just a few minutes. Other times you see everything very clearly, right away. It’s a job that has its complications and, of course, also its rewards.

Juan José Olivares: In a song, can you see colors?

Silvio Rodríguez: Orchestras often work with color and instrumentalists often use it as a resource. Impressionism was a period in which plastic art and music were very much interrelated. I have no doubt that, in a song that proposes it, color can be seen as well as heard.

Born in 1946 “where there is a river, at the top of a hill,” in San Antonio de los Baños, Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez is a bucolic Cuban who, in his words and by what he stands for, gives humanity hope of redemption.

In his beginnings, he sang with his guitar on a street corner, in cultural centers, universities, penitentiaries, or in the neighborhood. Silvio has sung songs of the people, of the homeland, to friendship, love and heartbreak, to hope and death, and to dreams.

Juan José Olivares: The dream world is a place where perhaps we are what we want to be. What are dreams for you?

Silvio Rodríguez: Dreams are like immense fields where angels and demons run happily, in total freedom.

Nobel Peace Prize to the Cuban doctors
Silvio, the musician, painter, photographer, activist, but above all, the human being, loves to write…

By email, he offered La Jornada his reflections on himself and his eclectic homeland, among them the promotion of the campaign to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Cuban doctors who are members of the Henry Reeve Brigade.

“The quality, but above all the humanity of Cuban medicine is an indisputable achievement,” he said.

Last year, as the brigade—named after a young man from Brooklyn who fought for Cuba’s independence—marked 15 years since its founding, they had already treated more than four million people in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and had saved more than 93,000 lives.

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Rodríguez hopes that this brigade will be awarded the Nobel Prize because “they are an example, a symbol of universal solidarity, even challenging our own possibilities. With their commitment to their vocation they have opened fronts of solidarity in many critical situations and countries of the world.”

He recalls that his childhood was spent in an era when Cuba was not like that. There were conscientious doctors and some public hospitals, but “they could not even remotely offer the variety and complexity of treatments to all Cubans, without distinction, let alone completely free of charge, as is done now. Since the revolutionary triumph of 1959, waves of young people who previously had no access to university began to train as doctors, radically improving the health system. Fidel Castro personally promoted scientific research projects.”

He noted that one of the consequences of that philosophy is Operation Miracle, a joint plan of Fidel and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, which has restored vision to millions of ophthalmologic patients in several Latin American countries.

“Today, Cuba’s health system continues to be active, but with great effort, due to the shortages imposed on us by the US government blockade,” he said.

Juan José Olivares: What would Cuba be like if that lethal blockade did not exist?

Silvio Rodríguez: It is a great mystery. There are those who say that all our ills are the fault of the blockade. But there are also those who think that everything is the fault of the government, for being overly controlling. Between the two positions, as I said, there are many nuances. My opinion is that the blockade has an enormous influence on our problems, and I think that if the enemies of the Revolution believed that our misfortunes were our own fault, they would have already lifted the blockade to destroy us. Of course, there is also the anti-Castro business, which even influences the US elections. That is what keeps this kind of industry alive. It employs many people, especially in Florida, and mobilizes a lot of public opinion. In other words, it is big business. I think that, if under this cruel blockade we have created our own vaccine candidates (and I say this without triumphalism), what would we not be capable of if we lived in peace, with the same opportunities as other countries? A Cuba without a blockade would provide the opportunity to exist and to show ourselves fully as we are.

Juan José Olivares: In the US senators presented a bill for Congress to lift the economic blockade against Cuba.

Silvio Rodríguez: In Cuba, the approaches of US politicians are also usually seen in both ways. When Raúl Castro and Barack Obama met, at the beginning of that attempt at détente, our more conservative colleagues, who predominate in the mainstream media, launched a barrage of mistrust. I have always been sure that in the people-to-people exchange we will win hearts and respect, because the people of Cuba are very friendly and noble. And with the same sincerity that shakes a hand, he makes his higher calling very clear.

Juan José Olivares: The EU has asked Cuba to treat dissident artists with “dignity and respect.”

Silvio Rodríguez: Those of us who are old enough have lived through and remember armed invasions, speedboats shooting, parachutes with weapons for subversion, bombs and sabotage, assassinations, the introduction of bacteriological agents… The blockade began in 1960 with the suspension of the sugar quota that the United States bought from the compliant governments in Cuba. Today it applies sanctions valued in the millions to any bank that carries out a transaction with us, it blacklists shipping companies that bring in merchandise, and fines people who visit us without its permission. They have said it in plain language: it is a plan aimed at creating such a deep economic crisis that the people will come to hate their government and surrender to its [US] interests. Can they be blamed for lacking any other perspective? Could the continuous abuse of six decades have something to do with the disappointment of some young people? In Cuba, a country where justice has paid a high price in lives and sacrifices, there are also deficiencies and even institutions that sometimes do not act as expected.

One of the first acts of President Diaz-Canel was to approve the creation of a foundation promoted by citizens of San Antonio de los Baños, with the purpose of stopping the advanced deterioration of the Ariguanabo River and its forests. After its creation, the Ariguanabo Foundation has requested several times to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment that this natural habitat be declared a Protected Area. There was no response. We insisted. As I once said when I was a congressman: our socialism is good but could be improved. Of course, this is something that concerns those responsible for devising policies and those who protect them. I just say what I think.

For Rodríguez, Para La Espera marks the first album he releases on digital platforms only. Today, Cuban society is more aware of the internet. However, there are technological gaps that are exploited by outlets that oppose the Cuban government and people.

Silvio Rodríguez: The initial mistrust that there was in Cuba to those who were leaving has given way over the years and became a constructive dialogue with the immigrants. That is why I do not believe that it is the diaspora, or at least all of it, that finances these outlets, although there are immigrants who like to call themselves exiles and choose to join the imperialist hostility. In the United States, anti-Castroism is an old business in which the ultra-right is very much involved; a business that handles millions annually, that finances radio and television stations, programs, campaigns, artists who believe in it or who lend themselves to it. The United States has an apparatus of ministerial proportions that closely monitors the Helms-Burton extraterritorial law. Donald Trump implemented more than 200 extra measures to stifle Cuba. Biden promised to repeal some of them and has not done so, even as we were under the pressure of the pandemic. I have no doubt that there are people paid to drown us with negative opinions and try to discourage us. In Cuba there are, as always, extreme positions, and there is also an intermediate range with diverse points of view. From the orthodox, there have been accusations of “centrism,” as if balance were reprehensible. Apropos of this I published in my blog (Segunda Cita) a short text entitled “I Am a Man of the Center”:

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I am a man of the center. I began by being born, without realizing it, to see myself in the center of life. I was still a child when I tore myself away from my family to throw myself into the center of the night, with the tinder of a primer and a manual. Not long after, I arrived at the center of myself, with a gun in my hand, defending a country that was reaching its center. I had reached the center of the collective consciousness and still did not know the center of human existence. That supreme center awaited me in the intimacies of a young woman. And it was the center of the world, of joy and pain, of bliss and death, lightning, deluge. From the previous desert and that humidity I reached the center of my words. To the center of spasms I gave life to innocents. To the center of friendship I made a creed and challenged mountains. To the center of death I have survived my own miseries. And if ahead there is any center, there I will be, in the ghostly mist of millions of names that continue in the center of everything, learning to be born.

Juan José Olivares: Is it a time to be self-critical today on the island?

Silvio Rodríguez: Being self-critical is essential to move forward. Life is a constant construction. On the political level it is the same, with the aggravating factor that vanity can be very harmful. Every deficiency that a country like Cuba does not detect and fight against becomes an argument for its detractors. Cubans are a people with a more than proven conscience and capacity for resistance; but even virtue needs support. Criticism and self-criticism are healthy exercises.

Juan José Olivares: Has anything changed in Silvio during the pandemic?

Silvio Rodríguez: The pandemic has shown us how similar we are, especially in something as basic as biological fragility. But the truth is that it is disconcerting to learn that some have multiplied their profits. That means that, even with the fear that makes us alike, life continues to be more promising for those who have than for those who don’t.

I miss the contact with people. Before the pandemic we did one or two concerts every month. This meant rehearsals, coordination, human contacts before the culmination of the show. Once a year we also toured abroad for two or three weeks. These are activities that are missed.

Juan José Olivares: What is the energy of the shows in the neighborhood like?

Silvio Rodríguez: Most of our concerts are in the most precarious neighborhoods. These gatherings have been generating a kind of familiarity. People already know what we are about and invariably we are received with a spirit of cooperation. I remember a neighborhood where we began to set up the stage, speakers, cables, lights, and it started to rain. It was an area of unpaved streets and it became a muddy mess. This made some structures unsafe and there was talk of postponing the concert. When I found out about the situation, I went there to evaluate whether or not to postpone the concert. When I arrived, I saw that the neighbors of the community, including elderly people, were there with buckets and pots from their houses, removing mud from the base of the stage. They were very worried that the concert would be cancelled because of that situation… It was very moving. The show could not take place that day, because the rain continued, but we promised to do it as soon as we could. Then they asked us not to take anything with us, they were afraid that everything would disappear. And we did not move a single resource until the weather allowed us to perform the concert. In the evenings those neighbors took turns to take care of everything. Many things like that have happened to us.

The only thing that is not the same in neighborhood concerts is that the music takes place in the streets, in front of the spectators’ houses. In everything else they are identical because we didn’t want to make “second-rate presentations.” The purpose has always been to bring real concerts, with the same rigor and the same demand as in rehearsals; with the same sound quality, with the same commitment to the performance as in the best concert hall.

Juan José Olivares: The ribbon on top of these presentations is the presence of children.

Silvio Rodríguez: The children have given us their drawings, with all possible themes, some inspired by songs. Sometimes they have started to draw around the stage, while the music plays. The neighborhoods are full of children. And the songs also come out of the children’s drawings.

Argelia Dominguez de Leon, Silvio’s mother, passed away last April. “El Colibrí” is a song in his repertoire that he used to sing with her.

Silvio Rodríguez: As much as (TS) Eliot may have written that “April is the cruelest month,” the poor thing is not to be blamed for our sorrows. On the other hand, “El Colibri” was a song that came to me through the family. My maternal grandmother said it was “del tiempo españa.” She taught it to her children and I heard it from my mother. Years later I began to sing it on tour, especially at the end of concerts. Then I discovered similar versions in several Latin American countries. The funny thing is that everywhere they said it was from there. It’s a beautiful legend about the sacrifice of love; that’s why it is timeless and borderless.

Juan José Olivares: Have you found bridges between musical expression and plastic art, painting?

Silvio Rodríguez: My first profession was drawing, design, the visual. Maybe that can be felt in some of the sung images. Besides musicians and poets, I have always had very good friends, painters and photographers. In Mexico as well. For example, I love Graciela Iturbide, Pedro Meyer, Eniac Martinez, who left us not long ago, so young. I always carry a camera. Once I was asked why and I answered that I wanted to be ready when a UFO passed by. I am still ready.

Juan José Olivares: Why did you choose to read a poem by Nicolás Guillén in your meeting with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador? What is your opinion of it?

Silvio Rodríguez: It is not just any poem; it is “The Wall,” which expresses the idea of kindness and solidarity, without yielding to perfidy:

To the heart of a friend,
open the wall;
to the poison and the dagger,
close the wall;
to the myrtle and mint,
open the wall;
to the snake’s teeth,
close the wall;
to the nightingale in the flower,
open the wall.

Let us raise a wall
putting together all the hands
the black, their hands black,
the white, their white hands.
A wall that stretches
from the beach to the mountain,
from the mountain to the beach,
there over the horizon.

Silvio recalls that he had first met Beatriz Gutiérrez, wife of the president: “a brilliant intellectual. And through her I met her partner Andrés Manuel, when he was head of the government of the CDMX. Back then, we did some concerts in the Zócalo, we fraternized and spoke a lot. We saw each other whenever I went to Mexico. Later I went to support him when he denounced the presidential fraud. At that time I was a deputy to the National Assembly and before taking the plane I left my letter of resignation. I could not allow my country to be involved, being—as it was—a personal decision. Luckily there were no problems and when I returned I tore up the letter… I feel affection and respect for Andrés Manuel, a man consistent with his ideas; a worker of exemplary honesty, with a dream of justice for [a place of] admirable people, called Mexico.”


Featured image: Silvio Rodriguez, photo: Gabriel Guerra Bianchini

(Resumen Latinoamericano-English) by Juan José Olivares

Translation: Orinoco Tribune and Resumen Latinoamericano-English

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