- Atahualpa Amerise @atareports
- BBC News World
Pablo Milanés, who died this Tuesday in Madrid at the age of 79, was a cultural reference point for the Cuban socialist system and the Latin American left.
Founder of Nueva Trova together with Silvio Rodríguez and Noel Nicola, he dedicated part of his musical repertoire to the ideas that the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959 upheld.
But, although the Castro regime lasts until today, the support of one of its reference artists gradually faded.
Over the years, Milanés came to describe the island’s government as “repressive,” claimed that socialism was a “failure” and called for a transition from the current one-party system to democracy.
Too liberal a revolutionary
Milanés, who as a child already stood out in television programs and vocal groups, saw the Cuban Revolution triumph at the beginning of his adolescence.
The son of a soldier and a dressmaker, like many young people of the time he turned to the ideals of humanism and social justice proposed by the new regime after overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1952-59).
“The origin is in what Cuba meant in the year 59 for the world. I was 15 years old then, and when I delved into the social reality of Latin America I became a revolutionary,” he explained in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2015.
In the 1960s, marked by the intensification of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, Cuba adopted the Soviet model and, with it, its inflexible cultural policies.
“Pablito was part of those who defended the originality of the Cuban Revolution; an originality that was called into question after the alliance with the Soviet Union, which marked the end of critical thinking“, explains the Cuban political scientist Carlos Alzugaray to BBC Mundo.
“Although they supported the revolution, these people saw things differently, they were more libertarian, focused on the rights of individuals,” he points out.
Locked up in a labor camp
Thus, one day in 1966, agents of the authority appeared at the house of Pablo Milanés.
“They deceived me in that way where they tell me: ‘You were chosen for military service.’ And I was chosen to send me to a concentration camp“Recalled the singer in a 2020 documentary about his figure.
He was one of the tens of thousands of young people sent to the Military Production Aid Units (UMAP), the forced labor camps where homosexuals, religious, artists and wayward intellectuals were imprisoned; in short, those who he considered “despicable”, in the words of Milanés himself.
The singer recalled the UMAP – from where he escaped to soon be arrested again – as a “brutal” stage in which he received ill-treatment and was forced to work tirelessly from dawn to night.
Decades later, he repeatedly criticized the Cuban government noever haberland apologized for that.
His most revolutionary stage
In any case, after his release, Pablo Milanés established himself not only as a singer and founder of Nueva Trova, but also as a one of the main voices of the Latin American leftist movement that sponsored and championed the regime of Fidel Castro.
“Bolívar launched a star that shone together with Martí / Fidel dignified it / To walk through these lands“, he composed in 1976, in his famous “Song for Latin American unity” that toured the continent.
The right-wing military dictatorships in countries like Chile, Argentina or Uruguay marked the 1970s in Latin America, which is why leftist ideas, with Cuba as a reference, captivated a large part of the region’s youth.
Many of them listened to Milanés, Silvio Rodríguez and other Nueva Trova singers who they dedicated part of their music and their efforts to promote socialismestablishing themselves as referents of the so-called “protest song”.
Without forgetting that most of his songs talk about love and only a minority allude to his political commitment, the following decade of the 1980s was one of growth and consolidation for Pablo, not only as an artist but also as a cultural icon of the Cuban cause.
“It will be better to sink into the sea / Than before betraying the glory that has been lived“, he intoned in “When I found you” (1989), a cult song for the revolutionaries of the time on the island.
The 1990s were a turbulent period for Cuba, which after the fall of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor, was plunged into a deep economic -and, for many, existential- crisis known as the Special Period.
Although at the beginning of the decade it was deputy of the National Assembly of People’s Power (Parliament) of Cuba, Milanés soon began to loudly express his differences with the regime.
“I am a standard-bearer of the revolution, not of the government. If the revolution gets stuck, becomes orthodox, reactionary, contrary to the ideas that originated it, one has to fight,” the artist said then, in one of his first critical statements .
Later he explained that change of position that took many by surprise: “ANDn the year 1992 I was convinced that the Cuban system had definitely failed and I reported it.”
“I was disappointed as a revolutionary because they insisted on continuing with an issue that didn’t work and that doesn’t work until now,” he alleged.
the final turn
After the Special Period he continued to criticize the Cuban government, but he never stopped considering himself a leftist and even in 2006 sent a message of loyalty to a convalescent Fidel Castro (who eventually recovered and would not die for another ten years).
“I promise to represent you and the Cuban people as this moment deserves: with unity and courage in the face of any threat or provocation. A hug, Your Pablo Milanés,” he wrote to the leader, according to the official Granma newspaper.
In the following decade, the artist expressed his admiration for more moderate left-wing leaders in the region, such as former Uruguayan president José Mújica.
At the same time, the winner of two Latin Grammys for best singer-songwriter album (2006) and musical excellence (2015). the tone was hardening in his criticism of the Cuban authorities.
“Stalinism is still in force, and the repression prevents street protests; the strike is impossible because there are no independent unions and the Cuban press is silent or complicit,” he said in a television interview in 2015.
The Cuban government did not retaliate against him -such as the entry and exit bans that it frequently applies to other critical voices- and Milanés, who lived his last years in Madrid, frequently visited Havana, where last June he offered what was his last concert on the island.
The president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, even dedicated an emotional obituary to him.
For political scientist Carlos Alzugaray, Pablo Milanés “is a very important figure for Cubans and the government has realized that, although some of the things he has said bother him, you have no choice but to hug him“.
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