Joy as Cuba Lifts Its Beatles Ban

Reporter Damien Cave finds communist Cuba is recovering from a bad case of stuffiness. Its censorship of rock music only defined it as a "very serious place," not a prison.

A few days ago, Ken Shepherd recounted how New York Times reporter Damien Cave expressed grave concern that 'class consciousness' might be on the rise in Cuban housing. In Monday's paper, Cave was more sanguine about the Castro dictatorship finally letting up on its censorship of the Beatles. Cave found it curious that these revolutionary lefties had failed for so long to find cultural kindred spirits in Lennon and McCartney.

Though today the bonds between counterculture rock and leftist politics are well established, back then, Cuban authorities - at least some of them - saw anything in English as American and practically treasonous. The Beatles, along with long hair, bell-bottom jeans and homosexuality, were all seen as cause for alarm or arrest at a time when green fatigues were a statement of great importance.

Cuba in the '60s and early '70s, says Mr. [Guille] Vilar, a trained musicologist, "was a very serious place."

That's the official Times euphemism for communist crackdowns. It makes a country a 'very serious place.' All this censorship of Western decadence in the Caribbean made rock and roll a 'rare cultural gem.' Somehow, it didn't make Cuba a disreputable prison.

Indeed, many Cubans still recall having to sneak a listen to whatever Beatles album they could find in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and the American trade embargo. Festivals like Woodstock and even smaller rock concerts hardly ever occurred - all of which helps explain the appeal of the Yellow Submarine.

Scarcity, as diamond dealers well know, is the genesis of value, and in Cuba, rock music is a rare cultural gem in its own right. But the Yellow Submarine, with its pealing guitars, porthole windows, blue and yellow interior, and Beatles' lyrics on the walls? The full experience amounts to a short, direct road out of the norm.

Cuba, after all, is still a country of limited media. Just a few channels can be found on television. The Internet runs on dial-up. And while music is seemingly everywhere, including clubs and bars, most of it falls within a narrow spectrum between trova ballads and rump-shaking reggaetón.

The Beatles club is still a state-run enterprise (Cave argued it's "still quite Cuban" for the Ministry of Culture to operate it). In the Times, Cuba isn't riddled with censorship, it merely has 'limited media.' That wouldn't be the Times term for limiting American media.

PS: A commenter (#19) on the Times website objected that the Times link to Beatles censorship dealt with the previous Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista: "And anyone familiar with the island can tell you that the Beatles have long been popular and that there is a John Lennon Park and a John Lennon statue in Havana. [Well, installed in 2000, anyway.] What gives here? Probably abysmal journalism as opposed to intentional untruth but the effect is the same."

On December 9, 2000, the Times ran a Reuters dispatch on Castro unveiling the Lennon statue in Havana:

"What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas," Mr. Castro said after the ceremony, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Mr. Lennon's murder in New York. "I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality," added the 74-year-old former guerrilla who took power in the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Cave replied (and promoted his reply on Twitter) that he was impressed that Times readers noted rock was censored in Cuba before Castro, but Cave repeated it was fascinating that the Castroites saw the tie-dyed anti-war hippie Beatles as opposition forces:

However, while Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship did indeed have his own issues with 1950s Rock n' Roll, the reasoning of the Revolutionary government in the 1960s was quite different, as was the music. What makes the latter unique is the disconnect between what we now consider an obvious link between leftist politics and late 60s rock, and what the Cuban government thought at the time. The leaders of that era, as I wrote, "did not know what to make" of a specific music and style, of the 60s and 70s. It may have looked liberal to New Yorkers and Londoners but for Cuban officials, it looked mostly American, even if they were British, and thus threatening.

Here is what Ted Henken, a Cuba scholar at the City University of New York, told me before I wrote the article:

"The whole anti-Beatles thing had to do with a kind of puritanical anti-Western decadent pop culture attitude - that included homophobia, no long hair, no bellbottoms, no hippie stuff because we are serious macho revolutionaries here."

This was not the thinking of the Batista era.