Cuban rock star sees change in U.S. policy under administration

A foreign rock star’s visit to America typically doesn't affect U.S. foreign policy. But Cuban musician Carlos Varela is here for the first time in 11 years.

Denied a U.S. visa in 2004, Varela's visit to America is seen as another softening by the Obama administration of U.S. policy towards its communist island neighbor. The singer-songwriter is making the most of it, too, stopping by Washington for the first time to meet with lawmakers and a White House aide.

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Speaking through a translator, Varela told The Hill that he has seen a change for the better in U.S. policy towards the island nation since President Barack Obama took office earlier this year. The administration’s willingness to engage with Cuba is a welcomed step, he said.

“Obviously, culture can’t eliminate differences that exist between the two governments,” Varela said. “But the culture can give the people of the two countries a more clear vision of how people are, of how people think, of how people live.”

Varela and other Cuban musicians and artists were invited to an October reception hosted by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. That invitation by the United States showed there had been a policy shift to the singer-songwriter.

“We could all tell that there had been a change,” Varela said. “There is a huge interest to make these visits more common.”

Varela and other Cuban artists were denied U.S. visas by the Bush administration in 2004. At the time, State Department officials said allowing them to enter the U.S. would hamper the U.S. goal of isolating Cuba for its poor human rights record.

Varela is not the first Cuban artist to travel to America since Obama entered the White House but he also believes that he will not be the last. “I think my visit is preparing the ground for a new avalanche of tourism and music,” he said.

Varela hopes to travel to the U.S. again next year for a North American tour. After his stop in the nation’s capitol, he is heading to Los Angeles next to work on a new album with rock singer-songwriter Jackson Browne.

Varela’s music has often been critical of conditions in Cuba. Some of the rock star’s songs are not played on island radio because they detail the younger generation’s frustrations.

“I am not a politician but a musician,” Varela said. “My songs have often been critical. The normal, young Cuban is critical. Being critical is the only form we have of improving ourselves.”

Varela also said Yoani Sanchez, a dissident Cuban blogger, should not be harassed by the Cuban government for her views. Sanchez, who has had e-mailed questions answered by Obama himself, said she was attacked by Cuban government agents earlier this year, complaining about her critical blogging.

“She should be able to carry out her career freely and I am clearly in favor of freedom of expression,” Varela said.

The singer-songwriter said he was able to earn a U.S. visa with the help of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba as well as the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a liberal think tank that focuses on U.S. policy towards Latin America. Varela is very much for lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba as well as lifting restrictions on Americans’ travel to the island.

“It is still slow. The people in Cuba were hoping it would be a lot faster,” Varela said about the U.S. softening its policy towards Cuba. “We all thought [Obama] was the man that would start this new path of relations between the United States and Cuba. At least he is taking some steps, such as the family remittances.”

Obama has lifted a ban to allow Cuban-Americans to travel to the island to see their relatives. There is also legislation being considered in Congress that would lift the travel ban for all Americans. Varela met with two of the House bill’s 178 co-sponsors, Reps. Jan Schwakosky (D-Ill.) and John Tierney (D-Mass.), this week.

Despite the slow progress, Varela is still hopeful that the administration will continue to slowly open up relations with Cuba. The musician, however, knows Obama has much on his plate, including a rough economy.

“In Cuba, we learn to have patience,” Varela joked.


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