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An exclusive interview with Harry Belafonte on Cuba, 10/25/03
by Sandra Levinson in Cuba Now

Cubanow.- What kind of commitment does it take to still be here, supporting Cuba, after all these years?

I don't see it as a supreme effort, it's a way of life: if you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, if you believe in people's rights, if you believe in the harmony of all humankind, I don't know if you have any other choice than to be there for as long as it takes.

But, what I want to know is how it can be that you're still here when it comes to a country like Cuba which has been so demonized?

Because I've really treated the world as a world without borders, the borders that exist are really very false, I don't believe in passports or borders. When I go to other cultures, other nations, I let the people of those other nations and cultures know that I respect them, that I find them important to my existence, that I find them important to life, I find their point of view important and I would hope that sharing common interests we would be able to shape a better world than the one we now face. Sure, it's difficult, but I think many of us try to transcend many of our country's policies and a lot of other things that our government stands for. In the final analysis the government has no choice unless it completely violates the rights of all citizens. There are some who get punished, and some cruelly, some who even pay a supreme price, and many artists are intimidated by that.

Many artists, or their agents, are intimidated by something as basic as lost revenue, too.

I think lost revenue becomes a central part of the nerve system of oppression against culture and artists but it's more than just the loss of revenue. If you had lived with the experience of McCarthyism, it's more than just losing revenue, you could lose your life, or you could be put in prison, you could lose your standing in the community. There are many things that are heaped upon us that contribute to the response of many artists.

What I think is so interesting about your work -true not only in regard to Cuba but in your work with many countries- is that you don't take the easy road of simply supporting cultural exchange; you go for the guts of an issue. And you don't seem to be intimidated by pressure or threats. Where does that fearlessness come from?

Well, first of all, I grew up in a tradition that's very different, and I think a very significant part of it came from my mother. She was a Jamaican immigrant who came to the United States of America, her children were born here. My mother was a very feisty lady.

How old was she when you were born?

If stories around the dinner table ever get straightened out, I think she was about 16 when I was born. She was a woman of exceptional beauty, and she was quite powerful in her thinking, in her personality, in her belief in justice. She really would not be pushed around.

Where did that toughness come from?

Well, she grew up on the plantations of Jamaica which was not too uncommon for many people from the Caribbean who came to America, especially around the turn of century, not only did they come to America in hopes that America would offer some new horizon, a hope of plenty, but many of them came here under contracts to the agricultural powers of this country, to do harvesting, as immigrant agricultural workers. Many of them found treachery at the other end of the contract - contracts were violated, many of them lived on company stores. Much of the labor was rooted in the south and they employed people of color in the days of legal racial oppression -we still have racial oppression, but at least it's not legal. Then, when it was legal, many of these immigrant workers had nothing to do but to flee and to hide and to run and to get lost in the American countryside, so to speak. For many of them the American countryside meant the large cities in the north, and many of my friends and relatives and people who came from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean came here under those auspices, and I think that community developed, like most immigrants do, a resistance to oppression.

When did your mother come here?

Well, I was born in 1927 so it had to be some time before that! She came here in the 1920's, and then bang! into the depression and oppression, and throughout the Depression she, like millions of Americans, stood on breadlines and begged for work. She was a domestic; she was here in New York. I remember standing with her on many a hiring line, when she was standing in a line of hundreds of women who came out early in the morning to be picked for the day's work in the rich homes of the other New Yorkers, and she struggled. She learned how to read and write, she was self-taught, and she became a seamstress, learned how to make clothing. She was a very, very motivated person. But mostly she raised her children in dignity and she raised us never to accept oppression. I have one sister and two brothers; one of my brothers has since passed away. I think my sister turned out to be the best of us all. Her name is Shirley and she's just a wondrous person. She lives in Washington, DC and she does a lot of work politically. She was on the staff of Madeline Albright in the State Department during [the Clinton administration] when people in the State Department were brighter than the people who are there now. When my sister was very young I brought her into the civil rights movement, she worked for SCLC and for SNCC mostly, and she grew up in the tradition of the movement. She's just extremely bright; she's 17 years younger than I, different daddies but same mother, so she got the right genes.

When did you first hear the word Cuba?

When I first discovered the word bolita, because a part of my family was in the numbers business in New York. My uncles and people who worked in the numbers business shared a lot of the delights and those opportunities with Cubans. When I was a kid almost everybody in my family who was Jamaican spoke Spanish and had a lot of Cuban friends and relations. So I'd say that from about the 1930s until now I've always had some relationship to Cuba or Cubans. When I became an artist and began to have some celebrity I went to Cuba quite regularly, before '59. I went there with Sammy Davis, Jr., and to hear Nat "King" Cole, and to hang out with Frank Sinatra, the place we hung out the most was the Hotel Nacional. Everybody was performing there, except me. By the time they got around to me - and I had a contract to work, when the Havana Riviera Hotel was first opening - I was in an interracial marriage as it was called in those days and all of a sudden I became persona non grata, in Cuba, of all places. But I used to go there with a lot of joy, mostly to be around the nightlife and the culture, the music. In my early days as an artist here in New York and on the jazz scene, much of my early music was with Machito, Tito Puente and others, so that culture, that climate of Latin life was not too unfamiliar to me. I didn't go back for awhile, I think the first time I went back officially (after the Revolution) was 1979 when the Havana Film Festival started, and then I've gone back officially almost every year since. I used to delight in Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and all the guys who used to tell me so much about coming down to Cuba and playing in all the jazz festivals. But I remember when I first went to Cuba, the distinctive line that was drawn between black Cubans, mulatto Cubans and white Cubans, and I remember how distant black Cubans were from any of the abundance that came with the tourist trade. As a matter of fact, you didn't even really see many black waiters. Those were good jobs in those days, and most of them were taken by the light-skinned Cubans. And whenever I would speak with Cubans of direct African characteristics and DNA, they told me about the brutality of racism and the cruelty of the regime against them, and how much they were oppressed by many of the wealthy Cubans who practiced many of the policies and social conduct that America had.

But many Cuban exiles say that there was no racism in Cuba before the Revolution, that Cuba was never racist, never like the US.

I think that Cuba, of all the islands in the Caribbean, all of which had their fair share of racism, Cuba was the most racist, without question, the most racist, more racist than Jamaica or Haiti or a lot of the other places. So when I went to Cuba post-revolution, the first thing I noticed was the mixtures of people, particularly among the young - there were still residues of the old ways among older citizens - but certainly among the young, when I went to the university and when I went to the places of culture, when I went into the day care centers, wherever I went in Cuba among the young, I was deeply struck by the fullness of the integration of race and certainly when I looked around at the jobs that were held in the hotels, when I revisited the Nacional, and when I went to the Havana Riviera, I saw a staff that was integrated and managers that were black, and things like that, so I'm not suggesting that Cuba does not still suffer from some racism, but it's important to know that it is not an official practice of the state, it's not institutionalized. The institutions there do a great deal to purge any residual racism. Those things are quite impressive to me, let alone the fact that culture, which was a toy for the rich and the privileged, is now a fully-embraced part of the national agenda. I worked with Chano Pozo here, so I knew a lot about the afrocuban culture. What most delights me - and there's a lot to be delighted about - is the culture of Cuba, the painters, the writers, the theater, it's really very very heady, it's such a powerful experience. To get to know some of the Cuban musicians and artists, to sit down and become friends with people like Chucho Valdes and Pablo Milanes, is a great reward. One of the great sadnesses for me is that in all the time I've been going to Cuba after the Revolution, and that's coming up on thirty years now, we have not come up with a more enlightened policy from our government toward that country. It's absolutely stunning -and now, even in the cultural field the policy is bad, denying visas to musicians and artists, it's a very very sad moment in all of our lives.

What's incredible is how connected people are in Cuba, to what's happening now, despite the so-called isolation and their lack of resources.

I'll tell you something that's impressed me greatly: experiencing the hip-hop culture, the Cuban rappers.

Were you surprised that there were Cuban rappers?

I wasn't surprised that there were Cuban rappers, because I don't care where you go in the world, if you go to the highest point of the Andes, if you go to the Himalayas, you're going to find a rapper from Tibet or the indigenous peoples, rappers seem to be everywhere. But I was surprised at how many there were and how uninformed the hierarchy in Cuban cultural circles was of the whole culture of hip-hop music. After meeting with the hip-hop artists in Havana about seven or eight years ago, I met with Abel Prieto (Minister of Culture) at a luncheon that Fidel Castro had, and we got to talking about hip-hop culture. When I went back to Havana a couple of years later, the people in the hip-hop community came to see me and we hung out for a bit. They thanked me profusely and I said, why? and they said, because, your little conversation with Fidel and the Minister of Culture on hip-hop led to there being a special division within the ministry and we've got our own studio. What I think was important is how open the leadership was to this thing called hip- hop, whereas in the United States we do so much to demonize the culture, and we don't even have a Ministry of Culture in this country. But here we have Cuba, with a new form of music that came from another place, from the United States of America, and they were open to giving it assistance, to help develop hip-hop music in Cuba.

If this were any other country, you'd be asked to be the Minister of Culture!

I think there's hope because recently I had the pleasure of going down to Miami where I was an official of the Latin Grammys and got to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to a great Latin artist, Gilberto Gil, who is the Minister of Culture of Brazil. If I lived long enough to see Gilberto Gil become the Minister of Culture of Brazil, there's hope for the United States.

He made an excellent statement in Miami about how wrong is the policy of keeping out Cuban artists.

I think everywhere he goes he makes a great statement and I think that was very courageous of him to say that.

When do you next plan to go to Cuba?

First chance I get. I hope to go down this December for the Film Festival again.

You had a film made in Cuba about you.

Yes, Sometimes I Look at My Life was a wonderful documentary that I was privileged to do in Cuba, to speak about both what I thought about Cuba then, my earliest impressions, and tell the Cubans a little bit about life in America as an Afro-American artist. It has been shown in some places here, but like most good things, it has a limited distribution in the underground world. It's been seen a lot in other parts of the world.

Have you only done one national tour of Cuba?

Yes, the one I was doing when they decided to make the documentary.

Would you ever consider doing another one?

I've talked about doing it consistently. I did my first big concert of the tour in Havana's Karl Marx Theater. Actually, it was the second; the first was an obligation I had to the students of the Lenin School, an act of reciprocity. They set up a stage and I sang there, because when I first went to Cuba, the students of the Lenin School gave a special performance for me and as you know it's very hard for me to sing without my accompanists. I don't play guitar, and I don't speak the language. So I promised, as an act of appreciation, that if and when I came back to Cuba, the first place I would sing in Cuba would be the Lenin School, so that's what I did. That was in 1981 or 82. I also taped it for the Canadian Broadcasting Company and they took parts of it and broadcast it, it was called An Evening with Belafonte in Cuba. It wasn't shown here but it was shown all over the world.

If you could do a Belafonte and friends concert in Cuba, who would you take from here?

Nobody, because I wouldn't want them to take up any room that could be taken up by Chucho or Pablo or other Cuban musicians. I could always see Americans playing, but who gets a chance to perform with these great Cubans or some of the great orchestras?

Yes, that's what brings so many US musicians to Cuba for the jazz festivals, the chance to play with the great Cuban musicians.

Absolutely. And there have been many other artists, who are not musicians, who have come from the US to Cuba to be part of the festivals and to see the Cuban community -Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Sidney Poitier, George C. Scott, Sydney Pollack- I could go on and on with people who've come to Cuba, and for all of them it was their first time.

Remember when the Namibian students at their Isle of Youth school did that moving reenactment of the massacre at Kassinga? (the students' parents were killed there)â*¦

Yes, I remember it very well. Remember how moved Gregory Peck was? I loved that. It was wonderful. He talked about it often, both he and his wife. If I could bring any American artists here, who would I bring? I think the first person I'd bring would be Bonnie Raitt. She's been such a strong, powerful voice for American culture, and she's been very much immersed in black culture in America. As a student -she once told me this, I didn't know itâ*" she came to see me as a youngster, before she became a performer, at the Greek Theater in L.A., and she saw Miriam Makeba and me and she went right out from the concert to the university and majored in African Studies. She went to Africa, and deeply rooted in her music is a lot of Africa; in her latest record she has a song written by an African, called "Help Me, Help Me, Lord." She's very much into the music of Africa and Latin music. But I'd like to see her perform in Cuba with the Cuban artists, she's terrific, she's fabulous. And I'd like to see Bono, from U-2, he's not American, he doesn't have to be bound by our silly laws. There are a lot of people I'd like to see in Cuba. I'd like to see black

American actors go and make films in Cuba. I'd like to see black American actors just go to Cuba and be part of the film festival, black and white, many have already been, Danny Glover, others. Susan Sarandon should go, Tim Robbins, people like Sean Penn. And when this silly blockade comes to an end, at least this phase of it, which is the most ridiculous part of it, hopefully they can.

Last question. Have you met the Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, before tonight?

I met the foreign minister in Cuba. It's hard to be in as many places as I've been with and around official functions with Fidel Castro and not see the foreign minister, who's been working with Fidel for so many years.top

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Harry Belafonte’s presentation of the Program (September 27, 2003)

I'd like to express my gratitude to the minister, Reverend Williams, of the Church of the Intercession. It is not the first time I've shared a platform with Reverend Williams around the issues and ideas that are important to the global family and certainly the American people. This evening's events have great historic meaning and importance. It comes at a time when relations between the United States and its neighbor Cuba are at its lowest ebb.

It comes at a time when in fact we should be in the greatest harmony and greatest mutual acceptance and respect for each other as nations and people.

But that is not the case, and my presence here and that of my co-host Jane Franklin, is to say that we stand in solidarity with the five Cubans who have been arrested and jailed here, who should be permitted not only to have counsel in the fullest sense without intimidation but should also be allowed visitation by their wives and children, their families.

What goes on with our policy in this nation against Cuba is not the American way, it is not the true voice of the American people, it is not the true voice of those of us who believe deeply, profoundly, in the rights of all people and the freedom of all people and in democracy.

The boycott, the intimidation of the Cuban people, have been going on for over 40 years. One would imagine that after so long a stale and failed policy would be understood, that it is about time to have another kind of relationship with our neighbor to the south, that it would be time for us to sit down and have honest, open exchange with the Cuban people and their representatives and try to reach a level of civility in which we conduct our affairs with each other... there's much about the Cuban government, the Cuban people and what they have achieved that many of us here are still trying to achieve.

I speak specifically about the large mass of African Americans, the large mass of Latino Americans, the large mass of the poor, women, the disenfranchised in the middle of a period when our nation boasts of its greatest power, its greatest economic power, and says that it is at the cutting edge of trying to bring the fruits of democracy to people all over the world to enjoy.

We have solidarity with what the Cuban people are going through... and I hope that tonight in this church, and what is going across the airwaves of America and to the rest of the world, will be just the beginning, here at the dawn of the 21st century, of a new kind of dialogue, a new kind of openness of _expression, a new kind of people- to-people program which will do nothing but benefit all of us in this time of need for understanding, a time for us to come together in a spirit of peace and justice...

I feel it necessary to make an observation. I've been in this business a long time. One of the ways in which I was reminded to measure how long I've been involved in the struggle for truth and human dignity is to tell you that the age of our next speaker was my age when he was born. It's a little strange for me to be introducing the Minister of Foreign Affairs with all of his credentials, because my fondest memory of him was sucking a Cuban lollipop...

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