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The Sound of Bravery

June 13, 2017

       Latin Jazz legend Paquito D’Rivera is known to have perfect pitch, a finely tuned ear that allows him to play his saxophone with velvety smoothness and, when called for, vibrant brashness.

        In this past week when Puerto Ricans voted in a statehood referendum, Venezuelan violinists defied their elected dictator and went chin-to-chin with helmeted riot police on the bloody streets of Caracas, and Cuba waited nervously for pronouncements from the Trump White House about the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, D’Rivera has also proven that his sensitive ear is attuned to the tones of political rhetoric as well.

       “We Cubans have to fix this situation the way the Venezuelans are doing it,” D’Rivera lamented in an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE. “They’re being very brave but we’re not.”

More than 70 people have died in Venezuela since marchers took to the streets in April to protest the madness of Nicholas Maduro’s Chavista government, which has turned the once-wealthy Venezuelan state into a basket case with raging inflation and empty store shelves.

       D’Rivera criticized the efforts of former President Barack Obama to cool down tensions between the U.S. and Cuba by restoring diplomatic relations and easing restrictions on trade and travel between the two countries.  Legitimizing the Castro regime by cozying up to it will not bring about change, D’Rivera said.

       “Fidel died, and nothing happened. He left his brother in charge and this one will leave his dog or I don’t know who but it’s clear they are not going to leave power,” he said.

       He is frustrated by the laid back attitude of Cubans who, despite living in conditions that can be as bad as they are in Venezuela, rarely raise their voices in protest. Since the Maleconazo of 1994, there have been no street protests in Cuba.

       Rosa Maria Payá and the Cubadecide group she leads supports a binding referendum in which the Cuban people would be able to vote on whether they want to retain the Socialist system that the Castro regime has imposed and maintained over the last half century, or adopt a different system with more individual freedoms and respect for individual rights.

       But such attempts at recording public sentiment have their own way of going nowhere. In Puerto Rico last Sunday, as thousands of Puerto Ricans were marching in the annual parade in New York City, voters on the island overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum for Puerto Rico to become the 51st State. The lopsided results—a Cuban-style 97% approved the question—were quickly dismissed by critics who pointed out that the opposition had decided to boycott the election.

      Puerto Rico and Cuba were both pawns in the imperial struggles between the United States and Spain more than a century ago. And while Cuba has struggled mightily to protect its sovereignty, there remains a lingering tendency to look north for solutions to its problems. Just as Puerto Ricans now want the US Congress to throw a life preserver to bring the bankrupt island into the union or, if not, then to help pay off its astounding debt, Cuba continues to blame the US embargo for many of its woes, insisting that if only the embargo were lifted, Cuban socialism could be perfected and preserved just as the Central Committee has promised.

       After half a century of broken promises, the Cuban people are weary. Some, like the brave Ladies in White, take to the streets every week and pay for it with confrontations with the authorities. But most Cubans are not in the mood to head out to the Malecon again to protest the way the musicians did in Caracas. It’s not even clear that if a referendum were held today that enough of them would vote to change the system that even Raúl Castro has admitted permits so many of them not to work. Instead, Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are simply waiting to hear what President Donald Trump says about the future of the island. Trump is expected to make public his Cuba policy in a major speech in Miami this month.

        Sitting, waiting and reacting. That is not the Cuba that D’Rivera, now 69, remembers, nor the one that he says he has any intention of ever returning to.

       True bravery is a difficult note to reach, but once mastered, it is the sweetest sound.   

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