By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES, August 17 — The alternative world in Cuba has been dealt another blow over the last few weeks with what can be called the seizure, theft or hijacking of the Rotilla Festival. This most recent occurrence is not an isolated event if we keep in mind the history of alternative initiatives on the island.
What was unusual in this case was the statement issued by the Matraka Productions company, the legitimate organizer of the event. This organization protested actions taken by the Ministry of Culture, which acted unilaterally to re-baptize the festival with the name “Summer in Jibacoa” (Spanish: Verano en Jibacoa) and plans to hold a government-sponsored event during the same time and on the same beach where the Rotilla Festival had taken place for the last five years.
What motivated this action by the authorities aimed at the Rotilla Festival? What options do its organizers have to respond to the event’s name change?
To answer these and other questions, I met with the director of the Rotilla Festival, Michel Matos, a 31-year-old fan of electronic music who is a member of the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) and an “almost philosophy graduate” from the University of Havana.
HT: Michel, Could you give us some background on the Rotilla Festival
Michel Matos: I had friends such as Joyvan, who were DJs in local discos here, and in 1996 or ‘97 we met some famous German DJs who taught us how to mix and scratch music. Plus they left us with a lot of electronic music that still hadn’t been heard in Cuba.
People in the discos really didn’t like it; and when we organized house parties, neighbors would always call the police to make us turn it down. Therefore we decided to throw a party on the beach so that we wouldn’t bother anybody. Actually, it turned out so well that we decided to organize another festival in August of that same year, 1998. We traveled there with all our stuff in a bus that we rented ourselves. Related to this I was arrested twice.
This was how it went, with ups and downs, up until 2004; that was when a German television station funded us to go on tour across all of Cuba giving electronic music concerts. In exchange, they kept the rights to everything they filmed. There’s a documentary, Dance Floor Caballeros, directed by DirkBoll. It’s on the Internet. We concluded the tour with a festival on Rotilla Beach, where everything began.
Though the tour was legally backed by AHS, while we were setting up, two military trucks blocked the beach. They were with State Security and the provincial government. They gave us three hours to leave with all our equipment or else the troops would run us out with a good clubbing.
In the end nothing happened because we had all the authorizations and permits so that the Germans could film. We finished doing something in a place in San Antonio del los Baños called Ojo de Aqua. It was something mediocre, or maybe “representative.”
In 2005 we didn’t do anything, we had to restructure ourselves. In 2006, after that movie was successfully presented in European circuits, we begin to receive e-mails and calls; foreign journalists wanted to interview us.
We were contacted by some people from Serbia who put on one of the world’s largest festivals: the Exit Festival. In it has been first-rate artists like Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prodigy… In 2008 they won the award for the best music festival in all of Europe.
They told us to present them with a project proposal and that they could help us. They invited us to see their festival, which turned out to be an injection of energy and knowledge. I traveled under the aegis of a Cuban institution, the National Video Movement, which operates under the auspices of the Cuban Institute of Cinema, Radio and Television (ICRT).
In 2006 we began to hold the festival on Jibacoa Beach, though we kept the name “Rotilla.” The Ministry of Tourism is the entity responsible for Jibacoa Beach, which is basically abandoned. After presenting a proposal to liven up the site and make some promotional videos, we held our festival there, which they actually liked. The following year we begin working on a larger-scale event.
HT: From what you’ve been telling me, the festival wasn’t political, in fact you worked with official Cuban institutions in organizing it. So why has the government now adopted this hostile attitude toward the Rotilla Festival and then cancel and replace it?
MM: I don’t like to say the government or the system, because I know lots of people in the government and the system who don’t agree with that position, so I don’t want to generalize. We worked with the system for years, though we’re independent and self-funding. The system only gave us permission.
HT: But according to what was outlined in the statement by MatraKa that circulated over the Internet, the government or people who represent it have said who can or cannot perform in the festival. Citing your words: “Censorship is one thing, it’s now routine; theft is another very different thing.” Does this mean that up until now you accepted the censorship to which the event was subjected?
MM: Exactly… Last year, as is customary, we were approached by the vice minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, who had several meetings with us before the festival, one of them at the office of the Asociacion Hermano Saiz, which ironically now says that I’m not a member (I’ll say more about this in a minute).
He told us: “Look guys, for us to help you, you have to help us. The group Omni Zona Franca cannot perform at the festival because they present a problem to national security and the interests of our policy on culture.”
I don’t consider dangerous Omni. If an artist is able to destabilize a government, that government must be pretty fragile and unstable anyway.
Recently, in a session of the Cuban parliament, President Raul Castro explained that there should not be intolerance towards criticism, that it’s necessary to listen to all sides for the country to grow. Notwithstanding, some of his vice ministers and vice presidents have some highly conservative views that would make you think we were still in the ‘80s.
HT: What was your reaction to the proposed censorship of the group Omni? Was it the only group censored at the last festival?
MM: This always happens to groups, ones that we support. But more than the groups, what bothered the authorities was the film we planned to show. We were aiming to show two days’ worth of movies: ones that either the film industry had censored or ones that had been made by beginners and were considered unimportant. The officials were very concerned about the showing of such films…
But returning to the bands, Omni has always been an ally of ours. For years they had helped us to carry out Rotilla with the aid of their computers and projectors. They asked to perform in the festival… It was very hard, but we reached the conclusion that the festival supported almost a hundred other artists and that a single group couldn’t put the whole weight of the Rotilla concert at risk.
We went to them to explain and they understood… In Cuba everything belongs to the government, and to work we have to dialogue with them… I asked Fernando Rojas: “Minister, what about the group Los Aldeanos? They’re scheduled to play, but you’re only censoring Omni. I don’t believe that Omni’s lyrics are more aggressive than Los Aldeanos.” He responded to me: “Don’t worry. We’ve already talked to Los Aldeanos.”
HT: Michel, you showed me a video filmed at the Rotilla Festival in 2010. In it Los Aldeanos deliver a very anti-establishment speech directed against the government. This seems to contradict the idea that they softened their line after the concert they gave at the beginning of last year at the Acapulco cinema.
MM: That was the culminating point. Los Aldeanos had a crowd of more than 10,000 people who showed up just for them. The authorities are afraid that the Rotilla might generate a revolution, a social explosion among the youth. We believe this is one of the reasons for what’s happening now.
HT: Yes, that’s what you figure, but what reason did they give for taking over the festival?
MM: Absolutely none. Everything happened like the statement said. We showed up one day to go through the regular protocol – to go by the government offices, to meet with MININT(state security) to make sure there would be enough police security, food, water, clean-up crews… Then Noel Soca, the director of the Recreation and Culture Commission of Mayabeque Province, met us in a parking lot and told us: “Look, you don’t have anything else to do with this. The festival is going to be carried out by various government institutions and the Ministry of Culture. This comes from Vice President Esteban Lazo.”
We then asked Soca if he was talking about our festival, and he said yes. We didn’t have a clear idea of why this happened… They said we were receiving money from the United States, something completely false. We’re good at coming up with funding, which is why we’re able to put on such big festivals. But we don’t depend on anybody, nor do they tell us how we have to work. We receive money through formal channels, almost official ones. I say “almost” because Cuban norms have problems recognizing anything outside of direct government involvement as being legal.
HT: From what embassies have you received money?
MM: Norway, Holland and Spain. We also work with Exit Festival, from Serbia, like I mentioned… And like you said a little while ago, the festival has never been directly critical or controversial, but our activity has been open to the underground vanguard movement, something that’s not programmed to act on anyone’s behalf. We welcome them and let them play, saying what they want to say.
HT: They can “say what they want to say” provided they aren’t censored by the authorities, because once that happens they’re cut from the program.
MM: If the state doesn’t permit it… There’s a slogan that says: “The beaches are of the people.” It appears somewhere. What’s of the people is really of the state, since “the people” is only in appearance, they’re not the real force behind rights or ownership. The government represents them.
Every corner that’s not a private house is owned by the government; if it’s of the state it belongs to the government. The government has control of everything programmed in public places, and if its position is that such-and-such group can’t play…well.
We’ve had to deal with that and at times we’ve been pretty daring. For example, “Porno para Ricardo” is a hyper critical group that is hyper censored. A long time ago they told us that we had to forget about them ever playing in the festival. But Ciro, one of the members of Porno, played in another band called “La Babosa Azul.” We included it in the program but the authorities didn’t realize that he was one of the members of Porno. La Babosa’s lyrics were much lighter that Frank Delgado’s, but they said we had manipulated them. They see a conspiracy everywhere.
HT: What artists or groups have been censored during the festival’s existence?
MM: Over all these years? – lots.
There was a time when the authorities sunk themselves in wanting all the lyrics that were going to be sung, and even all the DJs’ music. That was unacceptable. The DJs’ music doesn’t even have words. It’s for dancing, albeit maybe a little outrageous. That’s another term that they don’t like, “outrageous.”
DJs work according to the temperament that they sense from the audience, they improvise.
Also, they won’t have time to listen to everything… once we gave them our whole planned film program: forty-eight hours. They weren’t able to watch all of it even though they created a multidisciplinary team of people from State Security, the Ministry of Culture… Another time they suggested stationing two advisers at each stage.
HT: I don’t understand. Advise about what? With what training? In what field were they specialist? Were they artists?
MM: God only knows. I told them that this was completely impossible. The last festival was put at risk because of that. It’s not that we’re the most professional types, but we try to be. We’ve created a solid structure that has worked up to now. I direct, there are a few teams of general directors, producers as well as logistics, security and supply people.
Each stage has its own structure: a director, a producer, etc. These people work for months on the Rotilla Festival. They can’t accept someone showing up two weeks before the event questioning each aspect and telling them what they’re going to do. We work from ourselves. No one came up to give us anything, except obstacles. The government wouldn’t allow that, just like they don’t allow the United States or Geneva to come inspect their jails or their operations.
HT: In the statement, you say you’ve received threats and pressures. What have these consisted of, concretely?
MM: Let’s be honest. They’ve never threatened me or beaten me. In fact their line has been subtle the whole time. But even with the most delicate words one can create very strong pressures. I don’t want to get any deeper into this, because our position is one of dialogue.
HT: When reading your statement, I felt that the legal complaint — in addition to being courageous and necessary — had many possibilities, because the theft of the festival by the authorities was obvious. However, now they’ve made an intelligent move by changing the name. What options are left for you?
MM: At the end of this week I’ll have a meeting with the team of lawyers that represents me. They’re an independent group, the Cuban Law Association. Wilfredo Vallin directs it. He has had problems for having defended dissidents, but he isn’t advocating a distinct political line. His position is the one of defending all citizens equally.
The person in charge of our case was a judge who had served in a provincial court in Santiago de Cuba for twenty years. They are people who worked in the system and one day they noted that the laws respond only to one sector of the country: the state. The majority of people don’t know the laws nor do they believe in the existing legal system. Our lawyers decided to separate themselves from that system to defend citizens with the laws of the revolution. In this case, it involved royalty and intellectual property laws.
Legally, I don’t know what chances I have. They are stealing, although after the statement they recalculated everything and said “OK, we’ll change the name.” But from the first moment, even with the support of these lawyers, we don’t have a lot of faith that the legal process will be respected.
The government knows how to defend itself; it has all the weapons and resources to do what it wants. There will have to be a parallel line of pressure, though we’ll continue demanding our rights using Cuban law. But the main approach that we’ll pursue throughout the whole year, up until the date when the next festival would be held, is organizing the pressure of public opinion.
HT: If a year from now, through this strategy of combining the legal path with public opinion, you’re able to regain the Rotilla Festival, will you continue to be willing to accept the censorship that those authorities have subjected the event to up until now?
MM: Well, first we have to be clear about our situation. In Cuba, since the ‘60s there has existed a cultural policy begun by the Commandant Fidel; he told a group of intellectuals: “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing.” This is assumed by everyone in Cuba. We have always operated on the basis of censorship. We self-censure ourselves and censor others when they put pressure on us. We have no other another alternative.
We always do like what happened last year. We knew that some groups would be censored, but we included them in the programming and let the government be the one that censored them. I’m willing to maintain that approach. What I’ll never allow is the state saying which groups will play. If they tell me that a certain group can’t perform…well, fine; they don’t play, or they play because we’re able to negotiate it. But if they tell me that Haila will appear or the Bueno Fe is going to sing… that’s intolerable. We select the artist; and it’s the same to us whether they’re high or low profile artists. I repeat: it’s one thing to censor us, all of Cuba is wrapped in that, but it’s another thing to tell us what’s going to happen at the festival.
We’ll continue working hard to the point that they’re forced to negotiate with us. Over twelve years we’ve built a network that’s going to come back on them now. Many intellectuals have identified with us, and right now they’re in high-profile positions.
HT: A while ago you told me that you’re a member of AHS. In what art form do you appear registered, and what’s the problem that exists now with your membership?
MM: I joined the association ten years ago. A few days ago I had a meeting with the director of Culture for Havana Province and he told me that two days prior he had spoken with Luis Morlote, the president of AHS, who told him that I’m not a member.
When we went on that tour all over Cuba, the AHS president at that time was Alpidio Alonso, who formally made all of us members. Two years ago, in an AHS assembly, along with a load of gifts, I received this… (Michel shows me a certificate of recognition for his work in the promotion of the young art signed by the current president, Luis Morlote)… Two years later, in the middle of a crisis, now he says I’m not a member.
Four years ago, in the Madriguera (the provincial AHS headquarters), a hard drive was erased with the database of more than three hundred associates – among them, me. At the same time, through my negligence I lost my membership card. But I have a ton of letters signed by association officials and AHS catalogs in support of the festival.
As for my classification, I joined as a cultural promoter.
HT: But the reality is that you’re a producer.
MM: Yes, but that’s something that Cuba doesn’t recognize because a producer is someone who administers funding and comes up with money to finance the works of others. Not only did I get foreign financing, but also backing from Cuban companies like Havana Club rum, though not in cash. In exchange, we promote their products at the festival. Those are market mechanisms that the authorities don’t like either.
One of the things that bothers them most about the growth of the festival is the increase in funding. They say we’re peons being indirectly manipulated by the country’s enemies. The first thing I have to do is deny this madness, and I want to insist on what I consider the center of my philosophy.
Let’s suppose that all the people with whom I work, everyone at all those embassies, are in the CIA. But never have they given me money and then told me to do this or do that. I’m the one who presents them the initiative and the embassies decide to finance me or not; then we sign the contract, which I always show to the Cuban authorities. In that sense I’m very much at ease with myself, despite them having organized smear campaigns against me for some time.
Last year, like always, they questioned our work with the festival from Serbia and the money from the embassies. I presented them with a plan to charge admission to the festival, in a way controlled by the government.
This would be a way to finance all the logistics and pay the artists, who have never gotten paid for performing. We could also obtain money for our work, instead of depending on selling some leftover bottle of rum. The government could charge a tax and at the same time we would limit the entry of undesirable people. We would be willing to give up the foreign funding; we’d count only on Cuban companies.
Do you think they were happy that I would stop working with people who they consider dangerous? To the contrary; they got more worried with the possibility of me managing 80,000 CUCs (88,000 USD), which was the figure I had calculated.
That man’s face, a member of State Security, made me discover that what they really worry about is an organized and self-financed group that can pull off high-profile activities. Other officials I presented the idea to argued that I can’t privatize the beach. But the fact is that it’s only a small strip that we use for seventy hours.
What they don’t want is for people to have economic and social power. That’s in contradiction with all of us, because people here want to advance. If their Ministry of Culture, which centralizes everything, doesn’t have funds to support culture, they should let people like me organize it. This work has an impact and a tremendous public. What’s the problem? Is the whole damned planet CIA?
HT: A few days ago I commented to an acquaintance about my interview with you, and she asked why you don’t put everybody on YouTube and have your festival without anybody’s permission.
MM: This year the Rotilla Festival was canceled, it’s not going to happen. But next year we’ll put it on…and with the permission of the authorities.
HT: I want to share his faith and optimism. I said goodbye wishing him luck, but up until today, Monday, August 8, the Matraka production company hasn’t received any explanation about what happened, nor has the Ministry of Culture shown any interest in dialogue.