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      Cuba, Canada, Music and Revolution
      An Interview with Legendary Cuban Musician Pablo Menendez

      By Thomas Davies

      FTT: Could you please introduce yourself and what brings you to Vancouver?

      Pablo Menendez: Well, my name is Pablo Menendez and I was born in Oakland, California.

      My mother is a blues singer, a jazz singer, a people's struggles singer from the United States, called Barbara Dane. She was here at the Vancouver Folk Festival in 1983 and I came with her to sing. But she also was the first person from the United States, the first public person to defy the State Department ban on travel to Cuba, which still exists. She went there in 1966 preparing for me to go to study music there.

      So I went to Cuba thinking I would be there for a year. And now I've been there for 53 years, traveling around the world as a Cuban musician. I came back to the Vancouver Folk Festival with my band Mezcla out from Havana, Cuba.

      FTT:You took the original step of contacting and trying to contact the media yourself about the challenges you and your band faced coming into Canada. Could you please explain why you did that and what happened?

      PM: Well, the thing is that in Cuba, everyone knows that Canada is a good friend of Cuba and it's normal for Canadians to visit Cuba.

      As I've found here in the festival, every time I ask people how many of you have been to Cuba? Everybody in the audience has been to Cuba at one point or another. Unlike the U.S., where the government still has made it illegal for them to travel there. They have to use some, you know, some categories that are allowed. But basically, they scare people from trying to go to Cuba.

      Just very recently we started to apply for a visa to come here, after we've been here many times in the past for festivals like Luminato in Toronto or Toronto Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Fest or Ottawa Blues Festival, Sunfest, or the World Music Festival in London, Ontario.

      So, you know, we started to apply for a visa to come to Canada. And it turns out that the Canadian government has closed, for all practical purposes, there. It's impossible to get a visa to come to Canada now for Cubans in Cuba.

      So this really created difficulties for us. I had to figure out some very creative ways to get the band here and perform, because for us, it's like it's a matter of principle. People of Canada, people of Cuba are friends no matter what and no government is ever going to stop me. So I decided to come anyway and play and I wanted people to know because I think it's really sad in a country that supposedly is a democratic country with information and freedom of information, how nobody here knew anything.

      Maybe in the best cases, they knew a little bit of fake news about some supposed "harm for Canadian diplomats," which even if you were to take seriously, I could tell you a solution right away. The security forces of the Canadian Embassy in Cuba are Cubans, Cuban nationals. You just hire two more, one to take photographs, one to take fingerprints, do everything else on the Internet and you didn't don't need to risk any Canadians. It's ridiculous to think that anybody in Cuba would have any reason to harm any Canadian ever, because Canada is the only friend we have in North America, because United States government still has a blockade, which the United States calls embargo. Every country in the world votes against it, every year in the U.N., the U.S. blockade of Cuba, and the United States says it's not a blockade, it's an embargo. It's pretty sad.

      Because as I say, even if you were to take, you know, seriously some ridiculous accusations, unfounded and unsubstantiated, and believe fake news that you've heard that some diplomats were hurt. Well, okay. You know, take, for example, if you want to apply for a visa for Canada in the United States, the people that take your fingerprints and your photographs, which has only been necessary, I must say, since last December, are U.S. people, not Canadians, and they send it to the Canadian government and there's no problem. So you get your visa. Now, why couldn't they do that in the case of Cuba, instead of asking the impossible, totally impossible process of - Okay, you have to apply in Mexico. Meaning that you have to get an airplane ticket, get a visa, get a hotel, go, and spend two or three weeks waiting to see if you're going to get a visa or not from the Canadian government in Mexico?

      No, I mean, you know, this is totally absurd and totally inappropriate and totally un-Canadian as far as I'm concerned, because I know that the Canadian people do not feel that way. And even if you wanted to be really special, extra special, careful, okay, then hire a couple more Cubans to do the work and do the rest of it on the Internet. And there you go.

      FTT:The great thing is I had a couple other questions prepared, but you answered them with you with your first answer. So, if Justin Trudeau is at the folk festival today, the Prime minister of Canada. What would you say to him?

      PM: I'd say his father would be rolling in his grave thinking about some other stuff that he's done. Because, you know, I mean, it's pretty ironic.

      I flew out of Cuba. I got on the plane in an airport that was built by Canadians and inaugurated by President Fidel Castro and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. So, you know, this is very ironic to get to Canada through this kind of like backdoor way because Canada is refusing to give the possibility to come and visit this beautiful country in the summer and have the usual academic, cultural and athletic exchanges that you've enjoyed in Canada for many, many years. You should have the freedom to be able to enjoy having your Cuban friends come and visit you. Canadian families are suffering from this, Cuban families are suffering from this, it's just totally unacceptable. Totally. And something has to be done about it.

      FTT: You've been speaking about this from the stage. What is the response then from people who are hearing about it?

      PM: I think they're bewildered because it is impossible to wrap your mind around why and how this happened. What is impossible for me to understand is how is it possible in a country that is supposedly democratic and has freedom of information that people don't know about it. Something that was done in their names.

      One million four hundred thousand Canadians each year visit Cuba, right? And everybody knows that that's where you go for a beach, for good music, for, you know, a culture, for a peaceful place where there is no drug trafficking, there is no danger on the streets. And I mean, people from Canada come all the time, everybody knows about Cuba.

      So how is it possible they don't know about the fact that now Canada is refusing to give visas to come and visit Canada? Because, you know, I know a lot of Cubans that are permanent residents of Canada that have done a lot in a country of, basically of immigrants and, you know, people that have come from all over the world to build a prosperous, friendly, and neighborly nation like Canada. So, you know, how can this be? How can this happen?

      And if I had the possibility to see the Prime Minister? I don't know. I mean, you know, because I come from a country where the President does walk around the streets and you can talk to him. But I have not seen Justin Trudeau at the festival at all. I don't know.

      FTT: Thank you very much for taking the time. This is a really important issue that we've been working on and have you taken the initiative and to be speaking about it, I think it really helped get the word out, especially, so far so good.

      Follow Thomas on Twitter: @thomasdavies59

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