In the latest opening of American doors to Cuba, the Smithsonian Institution is preparing to host the communist country on the nation’s front lawn, the National Mall, for its annual Folklife Festival, in an event that could take place as early as 2017.
The surprise cultural overture to Cuba was made earlier this month by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a Smithsonian regent and the leader of a congressional delegation visiting Havana as part of President Barack Obama’s initiative to normalize relations with the country after more than 50 years.
Leahy spokesman David Carle said that the senator met with Abel Prieto Jimenez, a former Cuban minister of culture and an adviser to Cuban President Raúl Castro, about featuring Cuba at the event.
“It was a continuation of earlier discussions,” said Carle. “He believes it’s not a question of if this will happen, but when, and under what conditions. The festival is planned years in advance and involves complex logistics. He looks forward to continuing this discussion with the Smithsonian and with Cuban officials.”
Leahy told the board of regents of the developments at its quarterly meeting Monday.
“We’ve been working toward a Cuba program in a quiet way for many years,” said Michael Atwood Mason, director of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “We hope to show the vibrancy and resilience of Cuban culture.”
Mason said that Cuba as a centerpiece of the two-week-long festival, which is held over the July Fourth holiday, would possibly be in 2017 or 2018. The Washington Post first reported on the Folklife Festival invitation.
In a statement, Leahy spoke of the overall purpose of his trip.
“It was important to go to Cuba soon after the president announced his Cuba policy decision, to hear the reactions of the Cuban people and to discuss the process ahead with government officials,” the seven-term senator said. “We spoke to people on the streets of Havana and to activists who have suffered for speaking out against the policies of the Castro government.”
The U.S. broke relations with Cuba and imposed a trade embargo in 1962, but the recent easing of tensions – including the Folklife Festival invitation – is not being embraced by all Cuban Americans.
“All Cuba’s inclusion would serve to do is legitimize the Castro regime and paint it as just another member of the international community, when in reality its record of oppression marks it as anything but,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who is Cuban American. “The sad irony is that including Cuba in a cultural festival sponsored by the Smithsonian, one of America’s shining lights of artistic freedom, will only celebrate a regime that is hostile to artists who hold any independent point of view.”
According to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival website, the festival started in 1967 and “has become a national and international model of a research-based presentation of contemporary living cultural traditions. Over the years, it has brought more than twenty-three thousand musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, workers, cooks, storytellers, and others to the National Mall to demonstrate the skills, knowledge, and aesthetics that embody the creative vitality of community-based traditions.”