CSC letter published in the Guardian

Campaign News | Wednesday, 15 July 2009

In response to an article on the Royal Ballet's visit to Cuba CSC had a letter about ministerial visits published in the Guardian, printed below:

Let's hope that the Royal Ballet's visit to Havana may help foster better cultural and diplomatic relations between the UK and Cuba (Report, 14 July). As the Royal Ballet, William Hague, the Irish and Spanish foreign ministers have all visited Havana this year, isn't it time that our own foreign secretary followed? MPs from across the political spectrum are urging him to do just that in early day motion 1171, which calls on David Miliband to go to Cuba to engage in some real diplomacy with the Cubans. I hope that the Royal Ballet performing in Havana will encourage our government to finally break with the outdated and silly US-blockade policy and start our own constructive engagement with the island.

Rob Miller

Director, Cuba Solidarity Campaign

This letter was in response to the article below:

Guardian, Monday 13 July 2009

Arts and diplomacy: who gains when the Royal Ballet goes to Cuba?

The real value of diplomatic cultural exchanges lies in the dialogue they foster at grassroots level

The fact that the Royal Ballet is to perform in Cuba is no surprise. Sadler's Wells has hosted the wonderful Cuban National Ballet a clutch of times over the past few years, and Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta is a powerful advocate for Cuba despite, or perhaps because of, his having left his homeland for a London career. His life-story - dramatised in a dance work, even - is presented as the textbook fairytale narrative of the poor lad playing on the street picked out for his sheer talent and groomed for greatness by an enlightened regime. It is an incredibly powerful story and does no harm to the Castro regime at all.

Orchestras have been quietly involved in this diplomatic game for some time, as have indeed artists from other disciplines (and a key job of the British Council, funded by the Foreign Office, has historically been to use British artists as a tool of soft diplomacy). Maybe it is because symphony orchestras are largely regarded as politically harmless, the guardians of great artworks from the past, that they can get away with so much, and slip in apparently innocently when officialdom would prove too starchy or too combative. It is precisely because their artform is music that they are so useful. There are clues and hints in choices of repertory - often heavy-handed ones. But in the end, they aren't actually saying anything. The Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, though not a Chavezian invention, is cannily used as a powerful advert for Venezuelan nationalism and, by extension, the Chavez regime abroad. In February last year, when the New York Philharmonic played Pyongyang, the orchestra's appearance was widely seen as an attempt to soften relations between the US and North Korea. It was the first trip by such a high-profile American cultural organisation to the isolated state. Now, the same orchestra is for the first time seriously considering a trip to Cuba this October, in the wake of the US's lightening of some sanctions against the country. According to the New York Times, the idea has been run past the office of the vice-president, Joe Biden. "They said, 'Absolutely, it's a wonderful project and you should pursue it,'" according to Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's president.

Sometimes the diplomacy can be a touch less than soft. When the Ossetian conductor, Valery Gergiev, who is close to Vladimir Putin, took an orchestra to South Ossetia last August and played Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, this was a none-too-subtle statement of pro-Moscow (and thus anti-Georgian) politics. The Seventh Symphony is the Leningrad, the one performed during the siege of that city by an enfeebled, half-starved orchestra. It is the most potent statement of Russian nationalism imaginable. Beside that, the NY Phil's playing of the New World Symphony and Gershwin's American in Paris in Pyongyang seems quite innocent in its symbolism.

The orchestra co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, also has a powerful political undertow, since it is formed of both Arab and Israeli young musicians. Not uncontroversial in the Palestinian territories, it has none the less done an enormous amount to foster dialogue between Arabs and Israelis on a grassroots level. And it is at the grassroots level that those involved in such controversial cultural exchanges - whether British museums working with Iranian or Russian colleagues, or the Royal Ballet performing in the National Centre for the Performing Arts near Tiananmen Square, as they did last summer - say that the real value of these often politically controversial forays lies.

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