LOS ANGELES — Carlos Varela, the great Cuban singer-songwriter, applied for a visa to come to the United States to sing his powerful, amazing songs. He had concerts planned in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Our government turned him down.
Visas have been denied to other Cuban artists because their visits are "detrimental to the interests" of our country. In essence, the government says that if Carlos Varela plays concerts in the United States, the money he makes would go to Fidel Castro. This is untrue. In Cuba, renowned artists keep much of what they earn, because the government does not want them to leave the country and live somewhere else. Yet, the Bush administration used the same reasoning to keep Ibrahim Ferrer, of the Buena Vista Social Club, and Manuel Galbán from attending the Grammy award ceremony in Los Angeles last month. (Both men won awards.)
It also forced the postponement of concerts by the Spanish flamenco master Paco de Lucía because he plays with Alain Pérez Rodríguez, a Cuban-born bassist. I congratulate the State Department on finally determining that Mr. Pérez is not "detrimental to the interests" of our country, although those of us who were able to reschedule and hear him play this month know that he is a truly dangerous man.
In a profound way, our government takes on the role of oppressor when it tries to control which artists will be allowed access to our minds and our hearts. We may think we are isolating Cuba with our embargo and our travel restrictions, but it is we Americans who are becoming isolated. People travel to Cuba from Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy and Spain — countries we consider staunch allies.
United States foreign policy toward Cuba is unpopular in America, and for good reason. It stops Americans from traveling to Cuba and Cubans from coming into the States. It stops us from sharing medicine with the ill and restricts our ability to sell food to the hungry. This policy is an outdated relic of the cold war and exists only as a political payoff to Republican-leaning Cuban-American voters in Miami.
The policy of punishing Cuba works only when Americans see the angry face of Cuban repression. But in the face of Carlos Varela, and the language of his music, Americans would not find the mask of a demon, but hear the aspirations of people just like themselves.
Perhaps the most prominent paradox here is that Carlos Varela is known not only for his talent, but also for his courage to speak out through his songs, many of which have been interpreted as critical of the Cuban government.
While these young Cubans respect the accomplishments of their leaders, they are ready, indeed impatient, to run their own affairs. They want freedom for themselves and independence for their country. They want the new Cuba to be created by the Cuban people, not by the United States.
I believe in justice and human rights in the United States and abroad. I am saddened by the treatment by the Cuban government of the political dissidents in their country. I long for the day when there is freedom for both Cubans and Americans to travel in both directions across the Straits of Florida without undue interference by their governments.
I want this freedom not just for artists but for all people, American and Cuban, who live each day in the hope for a just and prosperous future. Giving Carlos Varela a visa to sing in America would be a good way to begin.
Jackson Browne, a singer-songwriter, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company