The Rolling Stones will arrive in Havana on March 25, a few days after President Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge.
When Silent Cal visited in 1928, living standards for the average Cuban were similar to those of Western Europe and the American South. Now, after being pinned under the thumb of communist rule for six decades, Cuba’s economy has been torn and frayed so its per-capita GDP peers today are Sri Lanka, Namibia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Blame communism — not U.S. trade policy — for letting Cuba bleed all these years, but I get no satisfaction from counter-productive trade embargos. Obama was smart to shatter the sanctions regime that was put in place five months before the Stones played their first gig (i.e., a long time ago).
The thing is, Obama could have won concessions from Cuban President Raúl Castro — the release of political prisoners, allowing independent media, unwinding the one-party regime. Instead, the country has moved in the opposite direction, increasing the number of political detentions and slowing the economic reforms that were intended to help small entrepreneurs.
As recently as January, the Obama administration suggested that a presidential visit would be conditional on Cuba ending human rights abuses and allowing more private enterprise. But forget yesterday’s papers; Obama wants a legacy-burnishing spectacle, and wild horses couldn’t drag him away.
I’ve got no expectations that Obama will shine a light on the tragic plight of Cuban political prisoners who languish in jail. A victory lap seems more likely.
Might we expect more from the Stones themselves? It’s only rock and roll, but remember, music has helped topple communist regimes before. The Cold War would not have ended without the widespread corrosion of faith in communist institutions. Anti-communist jokes played a subversive role in this way, and it is also true that many Soviet and Eastern Bloc dissidents found their alienation voiced and validated by rock records smuggled in from the West.
Today, of course, even Internet-starved Cuba is saturated with Western culture, so it’s unlikely that any musical group could have a dramatic impact. Add to that the fact that the Stones themselves haven’t met anyone’s definition of “subversive” for a generation or two. Still, we can hope they’ll just let it loose for one magical night.
Could they flip “Paint It Black” to “Paint It White” in honor of Las Damas de Blanco? The Ladies in White is a civil society group founded by wives and sisters of political prisoners who were jailed during the Black Spring crackdowns of 2003. Every Sunday, they bravely risk arrest — and occasional beatings — to march peacefully in protest of Cuba’s human rights record. They may lack his cocksure strut, but these women play with fire in a way Mick Jagger never had to.
At a minimum, let’s hear “Sympathy for the Devil” as an encore. Narrating in the character of Lucifer, Mick Jagger celebrates the havoc he unleashed via communism. “I stuck around St. Petersburg / when I saw it was time for a change / Killed the czar and his ministers / Anastasia screamed in vain.” A similar verse could have been written about Havana in 1959, starring a murderous Che Guevara.
Yes, increased trade between Cuba and the United States will produce economic benefits for both countries. This is worth celebrating — maybe with electric guitars and a Charlie Watts backbeat.
But the tragic repercussions of Castro’s revolution-gone-awry have not faded away. Many continue to suffer. Let’s hope Cuba’s persecuted are remembered, not drowned out, as the Stones roll through Havana.