No one knows where diplomatic talks between the United States and Cuba will lead, but we can now say where the nations’ already intimate cultural embrace is headed: to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall, as early as 2017.
Cuba will join the eclectic roster of nations — friendly and otherwise — since 1967 that have presented their music, dance, crafts, cooking, work-life and storytelling on that signature American green between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
Countries featured in the past range from Colombia, Kenya and Haiti to China, Bhutan and Scotland. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people attend the festival, which is held around the Fourth of July. This year, the spotlight will be on Peru.
“Most Americans don’t know our neighbors who live only 90 miles away,” said Michael Atwood Mason, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which organizes the festival. “The great thing about the festival is that we’ll bring 100 Cubans here, and they’ll speak for themselves.”
What began more than a dozen years ago as the dream of a few scholars in Washington and Havana has gained quiet momentum over the past 18 months. That was also when curiosity about Cuba soared in tandem with the rise of so-called people-to-people exchanges, which gave thousands of Americans the chance to visit Cuba on licensed cultural junkets.
The surprise December unveiling of President Obama’s and Cuban President Raúl Castro’s resolve to temper the nations’ geopolitical relationship added another impetus. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a Smithsonian regent, led a congressional delegation to Havana this month. The members discussed the festival with their Cuban hosts, among other issues, and Leahy presented the book “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects” to Abel Prieto, Cuba’s former culture minister. Leahy reported on the Havana talks to the regents at their meeting in Washington this week. Mason, a specialist in Afro-Cuban religion, will travel to Havana next week to continue planning.
“The opening of the relationship between the two countries is new,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture, and the author of the book Leahy gave to Prieto. “We [Americans] probably know more about [Cuba’s] geopolitics than we know about its community life and its customs and traditions.”
The goal, according to Gladys Collazo Usallán, president of the Cuban National Council of Cultural Patrimony, is to show “the characteristics of traditional folk and popular culture of the Cuban people, as these have unfolded through history, their present day currency and their impact on community daily life. And to foster a coming together of the [Cuban and American] peoples via many diverse artistic and cultural expressions.”
The prospect of Cuba’s inclusion in the festival troubles those who also are critical of Obama’s bid to restore diplomatic ties.
“I strongly disagree with the Smithsonian Institution’s proposed attempt to include Cuba as part of its folklore festival,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Havana, said in an e-mailed statement. “Painting Cuba as just another member of the international community does a disservice to the Cuban people and only acts to spread the regime’s political propaganda.”
“If the Smithsonian plans to feature Cuba in its upcoming exhibit, it must display the full reality of Cuban life rather than the facade that the Castro dictatorship portrays to the outside world,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said in an e-mailed statement.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who joined Leahy in Havana, countered that “when you’re dealing with culture and the arts, it’s a way to bridge political differences. . . . I hope people aren’t going to be scared of dance performances and musical performances.”
Smithsonian officials say that the Cuba display — like all festival offerings — will be steeped in years of field work by Smithsonian and Cuban anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, art curators and other scholars. It will be more concerned, they say, with how traditional Cuban son music led to contemporary timba than with how Cuba’s political system functions — though details are still in the works.
“What we typically insist on is that the Smithsonian has curatorial control over a program,” Kurin said. “This is about your culture, your traditions. It’s not about giving political speeches. We’re selecting people not because of their politics, but because of their artistry . . . their wisdom.”
It costs a country roughly $1 million to present itself at the festival. Well-to-do nations can simply write a check, but in the case of Cuba, as with others, fundraising probably will help underwrite the cost.
Because so much work remains, for now 2017 or 2018 are the target dates for Cuba to be featured at the festival, Mason said.
In Cuba, the revolution itself is a kind of culture, with customs, expressions and identities outlasting the moment in 1959 when Fidel Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista. Will revolutionary culture itself be on display on the Mall?
Mason demurred, saying the content of the festival has not been designed.
But the influence of the revolution will be indirectly evident.
“One of the things you can say about the revolution, is that the revolution has given meticulous attention to identification and documentation of these historical forms of community expression that predate the revolution,” said James Early, director of cultural heritage policy at the folklife center.
The Smithsonian’s relationship with Cuba dates at least to 1977, when former Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley dispatched scientists to meet with Cuban scientists. Ripley visited Havana in 1980 to sign a memorandum of understanding for scientific collaborations.
Cuban culture reached the Mall in a much smaller way during the 1989 Folklife Festival that sampled Caribbean nations, yielding a Smithsonian Folkways CD called “Cuba in Washington.”
Now live-from-Havana performances are commonplace — from the four visits to the Kennedy Center by the Ballet Nacional de Cubasince 1978 to the choral ensemble Camerata Vocale Sine Nomine Feb. 21 at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington and the Malpaso Dance Company March 1 at Dance Place in Northeast Washington.
Yet the Folklife Festival affords a more intense, personal engagement with the once forbidden island, said Early, who, on behalf of the folklife center, first raised the idea with then-culture minister Prieto nearly 15 years ago.
“This is the ordinary citizen-artist, expressing his or her love, strength of feeling and critique about what they have learned in the family and the community — the spiritual well-being of their lives,” Early said.
The festival is designed for attendees to be able to question, comment and compare their own cultural vision with the visiting artists. Out of those informal encounters may grow the sort of mutual understanding that diplomats only hope for on their best days.
“The Folklife Festival is not just about the magic of dance and song,” Early said. “It’s about the exchange.”