New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Rena Kraut
June 16, 2017
Two years ago this May, minutes before the Minnesota Orchestra conductor, Osmo Vanska, took the podium at the National Theater of Cuba in Havana, a decision was made in a cramped backstage dressing room. The operations manager delivered the message to the musicians warming up onstage, where it spread from the back to the front of the orchestra like a nervous game of telephone: “Yes.”
The lights went up, the conductor walked on, the audience sat expectantly, and Mr. Vanska pointed his baton. In the clarinet section, I rose to my feet along with the rest of the orchestra, and we played the Cuban national anthem to stunned attendees. “The Star-Spangled Banner” followed, eliciting more gasps from the seats.
The stories told about that moment, both in Havana and back in the United States, are a testament to the power of arts diplomacy. Our two anthems, played back-to-back in a state-owned theater, didn’t elicit boos, as some of us had feared, but tearful cheers. The warm welcome we received from the citizens of a closed country, most of whom had never met an American, came along with a surprising openness to American culture. And this from a country we Americans continue to punish.
President Trump announced on Friday plans to roll back parts of President Barack Obama’s policy for engaging Cuba. Americans will be restricted in taking private trips to Cuba, and group educational tours will be closely monitored to deter people from going as tourists. American companies will face heavy restrictions on doing business there.
The negative effects of turning back the clock on Cuba have been widely discussed over the past few months. Trade, agriculture, shipping, manufacturing and tourism will suffer, along with America’s efforts to control illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Even United States national security could be hurt should America’s presence be ceded to a less friendly nation.
To these, we in the arts and education world would like to add our small but insistent voice. If the United States wishes to keep influence on the island — and it does — then the path forward must be to continue the dialogue started in 2014. Silencing American arts institutions hamstrings our country’s most powerful method of soft diplomacy.
Russia and China are already deepening their ties to Cuba. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has said his country would restore the Capitol in Havana. History teaches us what happens next: In 1960, when the United States withdrew from its nearly $1 billion in investments on the island, the Soviet Union stepped in to sign a trade agreement with Havana. Fidel’s Castro’s political conversion to Communism followed soon after.
On both sides of the Florida Straits, all signs have been pointing to change, especially among the youth. Young Cubans and Cuban-Americans have no time for the stubborn old men holding power in Havana and Washington.
On my trips to Cuba in recent years, I met young people in full embrace of tech culture. Their Facebook pages are adorned with selfies and “liked” TV shows from “The Simpsons” to “Mozart in the Jungle.” They want hip-hop, “Friends” and iPhones. They were discovering cultural icons like the Beatles alongside their parents, who grew up under strict bans of English-language music in the Cold War era.
Ninety miles away in Miami, the children of Cuban exiles defy their parents and grandparents by visiting the forbidden homeland and embracing the complicated history of our two countries.
Some 285,000 Americans visited Cuba last year (excluding Cuban-Americans), which is close to triple the number for 2014, the year the Obama administration announced a restoration of full relations with Havana. These visitors find a population ready and willing to engage with its neighbors, a fiercely independent and entrepreneurial spirit born out of privation and an insistent desire to interact with Americans and to improve a stagnated relationship. It is here that artists have an opportunity to play a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for good relations.
Artists have the ability to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015 visit to Havana was a symbolic gesture of hope for improved bilateral relations. It was made richer by personal encounters between American orchestra members and young Cuban musicians and their teachers, many of whom are immensely talented and driven despite economic hardship. Although our embargo and their own government has made everyday life a struggle, Cubans take justified pride in their arts, athletics, health care and education. The students with whom we worked at the national music schools soaked up everything we could give them and asked for more.
One of these students was a 20-year-old clarinetist named Nieves. Her name means “snow,” something she has never seen. Her brother in Miami sends her clarinet reeds, but she cannot visit him. She works hard and wants to show the world what she can do.
Since 2015, many of us have been working to make sure she gets that chance. We ask that the Trump administration hear the voices of ordinary American and Cuban citizens eager to continue this conversation between amicable neighbors. Imagine what Cubans could do if, instead of extending a clenched fist, we offered an open hand. Imagine what we could all do.
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