On a cold afternoon during the last days of 2009, a man dressed in a black shirt, black pants, and a black hat walked through the quiet halls of Congress with a guitar in hand. While no passerby could have known it, this was a landmark moment for Grammy award-winning Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela. For the past ten years, Varela had been denied a visa to tour in the United States due to harsher travel restrictions imposed by the Bush Administration.
Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) hosted a briefing and performance with Varela that highlighted the importance of international cultural exchange. Varela—who has been compared to Bob Dylan for his beautiful, often controversial lyrics and prolific repertoire—was frank in his views on the problems caused by the increased restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba in recent years.
“With the Clinton Administration, Cuban artists were more able to come to the US,” he remarked. “There was a wonderful event in Cuba in the 1999 when a large number of musical artists from the US came to Cuba and met with Cuban artists. It produced songs, new working relationships, wonderful paths and bridges—projects that were all terminated with the Bush Administration. It was very telling that when I was denied a visa in 2004 to do a tour in United States, and many Cuban youth protested in Miami. How could it have been that they left Cuba looking for the land of the free and they weren’t even allowed to listen to their own musicians?”
Rep. McGovern agreed, giving an anecdote about his time in Cuba, “I went to the Cuban ballet… and it was like going to a rock concert. Every time someone did a jump the audience would stand up and cheer… I got to sit with Alicia Alonso… and she raised a lot of the same points that you’ve raised, that is why can’t we do more cultural exchanges? Why can’t the American people experience the Cuban ballet and the Cuban people experience the American ballet? I mean it’s such a wonderful thing to see!”
Throughout the briefing, Varela promoted the idea that “through music we can bring many souls together from both sides,” just as he did in the concert Paz Sin Fronteras this fall, in which he and a variety of Latin music stars spread a message of peace to over 1.2 million attendees. After his testimony, Varela picked up his guitar and rocked out right in the middle of the congressional budget room. Reflecting on the uncertainty of life and the individual’s ability to choose our own destinies, his voice rang out, expressing more than any lobbying packet ever could about the need to make a change. He put it best in his song “Muros y Puertas.”
“Since the world began, one thing has been certain. Some people build walls and some build doors.”
In such a simple phrase, he posed a tough question to the U.S. government: What are you going to build today?
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