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Sunday, January 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reaching for the soul of Cuba; Seattle chorus builds bridges with song

Seattle Times staff reporter

First come the trees that pepper the landscape with almonds, mango and coconut. Then the streets rolling with rusty bicycles toward tin-roofed matchbox homes, their dirt yards marked by the occasional pig awaiting New Year's execution.

On the dusty outskirts of Santiago de Cuba, a chorus from the United States descends unannounced on the tiny JosÀe MartÀi primary school. Children in bright red uniforms emerge from classes, a proud splash of color against the barrio's bleached exteriors.

"Who are these people?" their eyes seem to say.

A band of voices answers: We're marching on to Freedomland. . . . We're marching on to Freedomlaaaand. ...

The children's faces fill with wonder, and teachers gather, clapping in time. The courtyard lights with the power of song.

This is why a dozen Washington state singers practically hijacked their tour bus, demanding a stop on this fraying ribbon of Cuba's second-largest city. Soon everyone links in refrains of "Guantanamera," riding a high that underscores the notion of music as universal language.

This is how the Seattle Peace Chorus, in town for an international choral festival, practices diplomacy. Its members come not as tourists but as goodwill ambassadors set on changing hearts, not policy, the same idea that fueled earlier missions to the Soviet Union and Chile.

For two weeks in early December, the 40 amateur singers share their message around the country, at schools, in medical clinics and maternity wards - sites run up the flagpole by a government trumpeting free education and health care as a revolution's rewards.

But they also venture beyond the prearranged tour, to religious and ethnic cultural centers, private homes and a cigar factory.

For many citizens in the United States, images of Cuba have been rationed out in two extremes: on one hand, the flag-waving fans of President Fidel Castro; on the other, the desperate poor and political dissidents driven to flee on makeshift rafts.

While chorus members don't expect a socialist utopia, neither do they think Cuba deserves its Darth Vader reputation.

"I don't think it's an ideal civilization by any means, but I want to see for myself," says Oscar Halpert, a finance employee for Seattle's Northwest Kidney Center.

What he and others find is a nation whose 1950s character threatens to quantum-leap into an uncertain future, fueled by Castro's inevitable passing and growing ripples of capitalism. On busy avenues flush with sidecar motorcycles, rickety Packards and Buicks and the stench of exhaust, they sense budding hints of transformation.

They find a warm, resourceful people whose spirit and generosity prosper despite the barren cupboards of a faltering economy. They find a freedom of movement they did not expect and an aura of living history. But they also find a rote patriotism hammered home by a government fighting to maintain the victories of the past.

Shana Bestock, Martha Cohen and others find pockets of familiarity in Cuban Jewish cultural centers and synagogues, while Karyll Henry and Fabiola Rodriguez sip sacred rum in the steamy, surreal confines of a drum-laden voodoo ceremony where deities - like those of Cuba's "unofficial religion," Santeria - hide behind Christian icons.

The group's newer members experience highs of chorus lore - the euphoria of impromptu factory song bursts, the adrenaline rush of singing in the streets with choirs from around the world.

"Something I was always dreaming about was, how was the real Cuba?" tenor Sergio Urrutia remarks. So far, the Chilean native says, it hardly resembles the country he expected.

"It's another Cuba," he says. "It's the real Cuba."

Miles away, worlds apart

Only 100 miles separate Havana and the Florida Keys, but 40 years of acrimony keep the U.S. and Cuba worlds apart, an uneasy relationship summed up in the saga of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez.

Found lashed to an inner tube after his Florida-bound boat sank, killing his mother and 10 others, Elian - and the fight over his eventual home - has become a symbol of all that has transpired since Castro's 1959 overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

It was after that overthrow and a series of hostile counterpunches that the U.S. shut the door on Cuba. In a series of Cuban agrarian reforms and nationalization answered by U.S. moves to block trade, American-owned companies were taken over without compensation.

U.S. sanctions followed, banning almost all exports to Cuba and setting limits on American travel and spending there. When the U.S. stopped buying its sugar, Cuba turned instead to the Soviet Union.

With communism taking root, many of those whose livelihoods were ruined or threatened fled the island, bound for Florida and New York.

Relations deteriorated into near war: In 1961, the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion failed at Cuba's Playa GirÀon; the next year, Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to install missiles on its soil, pushing the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. Through the years, Cuba continued to provoke the U.S. by supporting revolutionary forces in Latin America and Africa.

The intent of the nearly 40-year-old embargo is to promote a democratic transition in Cuba, with free and open elections. But even as Congress has increased the embargo's restrictions, the door has been slowly creaking open, with increasing calls to end the blockade coming from sources as varied as the United Nations, Illinois Gov. George Ryan and U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials.

"Talk about being in the right place at the right time," Seattle Peace Chorus member Howard Gutknecht said before the trip. "I believe going there and singing is the best way to move toward peace."

A year ago, President Clinton loosened limits on money sent there by Cuban Americans, increased direct charter-flight service and made possible more "people-to-people" exchanges such as the chorus' visit.

While Americans cannot go to Cuba as tourists, the chorus obtained a religious visa through Washington, D.C.-based Witness for Peace, a human-rights agency with operations in places like Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico and a clear position against the embargo. (Working journalists are allowed to visit Cuba under general license.)

The chorus has been overcoming obstacles since 1983, when it toured the Soviet Union. At the time, many considered the visit unthinkable, even un-American. Four visits later - including two to Seattle by a Soviet chamber choir in 1990 and '91 - former Russian consul Georgi Vlaskin said of the chorus: "They bring the message of love, understanding, friendship and goodwill and do it in a manner no one of us, the bureaucrats, can possibly do."

A 1995 trip to Chile followed. Last year, members realized the group was doomed without another international mission.

"Cuba has really revitalized us," says seven-year veteran Julie Kerby. "This is a return to our early years. We dare to go where people don't go."

Chorus members fall in line against the 40-year-old embargo, which critics say has served only to aggravate the misery of Cuban citizens while failing to undercut Castro's rule. With U.S. tourism and agricultural concerns now eyeing Cuba as a potential customer, capitalistic pressures on the blockade are beginning to rival humanitarian ones.

But embargo supporters, particularly many displaced Cubans in South Florida for whom bitterness still lingers, say communism's end and civil-rights reforms depend on continuation of the embargo. While the blockade has hurt Cuba, they say, the paucity of freedom and private enterprise has hurt even more.

Like the bulbous old cars rumbling along Havana streets, the embargo is being tested by time.

Forty years of bitterness have made the two countries a pair of squabbling aunties, eager to stoke the feud. Elian Gonzalez had no idea what he was getting into. As Castro has stirred up demonstrations of popular support for his return, his relatives in the U.S. have shown him Disney World while hundreds of Cuban Americans rally to keep him in Miami.

He is a tiny thread, stretched between international forces in an almost literal game of tug-of-war. Human understanding seems lost in the war of competing agendas - the very condition the Seattle Peace Chorus set out to change.

"I can't believe I'm here," says chorus member Darcie Franzen as the group weaves its way through the capital city of Havana.

With clean downtown streets canyoned by Spanish arches and wrought-iron overhangs, Havana is home to 2.5 million of the country's 11 million people. The city's residents, the habaneros, dot the doorsteps of flat, Easter-egg-hued suburbs, signing at meager markets for monthly rations of eggs or rice, powering the pilas de gente - human batteries - that push-start cars and tractors.

A make-do climate prevails - light fixtures that need jostling before they illuminate; squawking barbershop radios made of dusty circuits and wires hooked up to car speakers.

With his tumbleweed beard and preacher's index finger, the 73-year-old Castro is a TV fixture. While many resent his totalitarian smothering of critics and a system whose "Animal Farm" equality means some are more equal than others, aging patriots like Hector Vilgret extol the ideology for which they took up arms.

"Everybody has a right to study and to get medical care," Vilgret says. "Those are the principles of the revolution, because that's how people suffered most in the old days."

For all there is a palpable pride in Cuba's culture, rich musical heritage and a sense of independence and community rooted in JosÀe MartÀi and other national heroes who long preceded Castro. But economic realities are eating away at the country's foundations like the surf pounding the walls of the MalecÀon, Havana's famed waterfront promenade.

As Luz Maria Dranguet, 76, says in unwitting metaphor as she joyfully welcomes several guests delivering a care package from U.S. relatives to her hardscrabble Havana home one morning: "Be careful. The ceiling is falling in."

Crossing cultures in a cigar factory..

When a handful of delegates visits the Fabrica La Corona cigar factory, near the Havana's Museum of the Revolution, the chorus' mission comes to life.

They're greeted by Odalys Reyes, whose job includes reading literature and newspapers to the company's 700 employees as they work - a tradition that goes back to MartÀi, the Cuban essayist, poet and military hero. This was how the cigar workers grew to love Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo," giving the famed Montecristo cigar its name.

The singers pack into the elevator like a box of Trinidads, then spill out into a fluorescent-lit, high-ceilinged room where 75 workers tear tobacco leaves. Pictures of Castro and fellow patriot Che Guevara keep watch from shabby, oversized frames. With tired faces and practiced efficiency, the laborers extract veins with one hand while curling the leaves with the other, folding the leaves onto their knees in growing piles.

Then - the sound of voices. The song is "Shenandoah," an American classic whose delayed weaving of high and low tones breathes life into the lyrical rolling river, evoking the aura of a 1940s frontier movie. The buzz of activity brakes like a barroom keyed on a long fly ball in a TV baseball game. As the final chord melts away, the workers throw down their leaves, crying "Otra! Otra!" (Another! Another!).

Vern Olsen, a husky, curly-haired tenor, yanks out his accordion and launches into an original number whose roll-out-the-barrel festivity features the phrase, "See you in C-U-B-A!" The room alights with smiles, and a woman in white tank top and head scarf bounces in place as workers dance out of their seats.

"Bravo!" they shout, blowing kisses as the chorus members move on. "Bravo!"

And so it goes, into lime-pillared, yellow-walled work areas where veteran laborers press newborn cigars in the bonches that solidify their shape, then into other areas where smokes are separated by shade for uniformity. Each encounter fills the room with excitement; one checker-skirted woman scoops up singer Wylie Vracin, a Whidbey Island physician, for a dance.

Says 32-year employee Nemecia Saez: "This change that is happening between our countries is very good."

Outside the walls the delegates return to reality, where the legalization of the U.S. dollar has created a double economy. The result: Few have access to the dollars needed to buy basic items, and tourists are prodded from every direction by people hawking pilfered cigars and rum.

Says Pavel Hechavarria of rural Camaguey, "Everybody who works somewhere - in the bakery or whatever, is stealing something to sell because they need money."

Hechavarria was among the hordes of Cubans who scrambled away on rafts for Florida in 1994. He made the trip with his father and brother, he says, after the government took their home as a reward for a military hero.

The Cuban coast guard snuffed their attempt and briefly jailed them. Now 23, Hechavarria, like many of his countrymen, escapes in a different way - through the times spent with visitors from places he can only dream of going someday.

Breaking down walls

Four days after arriving, the chorus lands in the sun-baked, tropical lushness of Santiago, where the choral festival is already under way.

With 1.2 million people, the 485-year-old city is Havana's curvaceous and sassy older sister - the one you don't see much because she's been out late, having fun. This is the Cuba of the film "Buena Vista Social Club" - old cars, older people and the ubiquitous strains of "Chan Chan."

The chorus' premiÁere will take place at the Sala Dolores, a church reborn as a concert hall at one end of a central plaza, with towering arches and a circus-ring-size stage. Nations joining Cuban choirs at the event include Spain, Mexico, Argentina and Finland.

The night before their premiere, chorus members sample the festival, and a curious thing happens: It comes just after the announcement of the next night's program. The mention of the U.S. sends a disconcerting murmur rippling through the audience.

Around Cuba, emotions are beginning to bubble over Elian Gonzalez, and in the coming days, chorus members will see students picket in public parks and 10,000 people marching on the MalecÀon, calling for his return. Chorus members will be there when baseball fans at a game between Havana and La Isla de Juventud applaud an announcer railing against the "Yankee imperialists" who have "kidnapped" the boy.

With all that in the wings, the mysterious murmur takes on a life of its own. The singers leave the hall wondering how - and if - their premiere will be welcomed.

Outside the festival, they regain their confidence, meandering in offshoots of goodwill, amazed at the spirit that thrives despite decrepit conditions and the ever-present shadow of Castro. On the morning of their big day, a visit to a music school erupts into a 20-minute chorus-and-student jam of drums and maracas on a hot, crowded dance floor.

Outside, a cocoa-skinned Cuban watches the spectacle: "Music," she says to herself in Spanish, "is the international language." Inside, a local tour guide accompanying the chorus taps Seattle's Dina Blade on the shoulder. "I hope our countries can come together," she says.

The sweaty mass spills into the street, and Oscar Halpert finds that a young student drummer has beat his hands into blisters.

"Just put them in ice," Halpert says.

"We don't have ice," the kid answers.

The afternoon rehearsal is jittery with nerves. Director Mark Kloepper reminds the singers to keep their vowels pure, their consonants crisp.

When he introduced "The Battle of Jericho" into the chorus' repertoire early last year, some thought Kloepper crazy. The tightly woven spiritual, with precision-paced highs and lows, required a level of rhythm the group didn't have. But Kloepper, a jester-faced bear of a man, wrung it out of them, along with a head-turning swirl of high notes from soprano Julie Kerby.

Craig Salins, a chorus troubleshooter, finds symmetry in that the song, about an army beating great odds with nothing but trumpets, has emerged as the group's finale. Likewise, he says, "we're using our voices, and our mission of friendship, to bring down the walls between our countries."

That night, they file into an overflowing hall and lay down spirituals, Gershwin and Duke Ellington. Then comes the moment when Sergio Urrutia approaches the mike, puny in the face of the international crowd.

Their final song, Urrutia explains, recounts how Joshua and his band of fighters brought down Jericho's walls. All of us, working together, he says, can help lift the blockade separating the U.S. and Cuba.

From the audience rolls a wave of thunderous applause, and onto their feet they rise - even the old, pre-Revolutionary men and women whose tired bones were a task to plant in the first place, creak slowly to their feet, calling out: "Bravo!"

The chorus hands the crowd a near-perfect version of the song:

Talk about your kings of Gideon

Talk about your men of Saul

But none like good ol' Joshua at the battle of Jericho...

Right up to the walls of Jericho he marched with spear in hand...

Then the lamb, ram, sheep horns begin to blow

and the trumpet begins to sound

Joshua commanded the children to shout!

And the walls came a-tumbalin' down.

Their performance assuages in one swoop the cold showers, power failures, prickly personalities and stuffy accommodations that ultimately brought them closer together. In the jazzed atmosphere, a local doctor tells chorus president Jennifer Sumner how much the song - and Urrutia's message - touched him.

Says Seattle's Jamila Barton, at 23 the group's youngest member: "I thought our government would just overshadow who we were. It was so nice for them to see us as people."

Thus emboldened, the singers tear down more walls. Like modern Joshuas of the song they've conquered, they seep into Santiago neighborhoods, forging connections for the future.

Medical technician John Jerin tracks down local paramedics to talk about emergency procedures. Teacher Deborah Lund visits more schools, wincing at their paltry library collections. Others spend time with aging mah-jongg players at Santiago's Chinese cultural center - Chinese make up 3 percent of Cuba's population - while a few find themselves having dinner at the homes of new friends.

Wylie Vracin sits on a hotel lobby sofa in a baseball cap, translating Negro spirituals for a flock of Venezuelan choirboys.

At Santiago's lone synagogue, the group's Jewish members - among them Oscar Halpert, Shana Bestock, Martha Cohen and Markos Weiss - are surprised by a Hanukkah feast. For the maybe 80 Jews in this city of a million people, the presence of a handful of fellow believers is sugar cane for the soul.

Weiss has brought menorahs. "You'd think I just brought gold," he says.

Before long, all are locked arm in arm, prancing in celebratory circles, as light as the inflatable toy dreidel spinning across the synagogue floor.

Finally, there is Vracin, who listens to a bus driver's sad tale of a sick son. He makes time for a Cuban house call. He checks the boy out and assures the family: Your boy will be OK. He writes a letter to the local clinic. Probably a hormonal condition, he says.

As the doctor leaves, the boy's father embraces him, saying: Somos hermanos. Tu eres un Revolucionario.

We are brothers, he says. And you are a Revolutionary.

That night, the chorus unwinds at poolside with Cuban rum and coffee under starry Santiago skies. A song by a local jazz group burns in Vracin's mind like a Montecristo's glowing embers. Borrowed from a Cuban poet, it states: A veces hay que caminar cuando no hay camino.

" `Sometimes one must walk where there is no path,' " Vracin says. "That's the line that just keeps coming back to me."

In the coming weeks, the international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez will continue to rage. Elian, the U.S. ruling states, must go home. From a distance, the ensuing protests indicate things are more complicated.

But sometimes the complexities that separate nations can seem simple up close. Walls, the singers think, can be dismantled the same way they were built: one brick at a time.

A homecoming

She is in Havana for the first time in 37 years, passing old apartment buildings and churches whose dusty, marble interiors are the focus of renovation. The tattered, faded facades offer glimpses of the past. "You really get a sense of what it used to be like," Fabiola Rodriguez says.

In 1962, she and her brother bid their parents goodbye in the uncertainaftermath of Fidel Castro's revolution. She was 12, headed for the U.S.: "We thought we'd be here a couple of years and then go back," she says.

They had no idea how badly U.S.-Cuba relations would deteriorate. Neither saw their parents again.

Now, as a member of the Seattle Peace Chorus, Rodriguez returns to the sun-swept time capsule of her childhood and finds that everything is half as big as she remembers, that the oleander and rose bushes of her memories have given way to inhospitable cactus. As a 4-year-old, she'd go onto the deck of her house and sing to the birds - songs she'd heard on the radio or in the Spanish operettas she'd watch on television.

That went on until she was 11. "Then somebody on the other side of the fence clapped," she says, "and I got embarrassed and never did it again."

Nearly three decades later, as a Seattle School District interpreter, she revived her musical appetite as a South End chorus member. Then she saw a notice seeking singers for the Seattle Peace Chorus' annual spring concert. "Singing for peace sounded good to me," she says.

When the group committed in April to go to Cuba, the affiliation gave Rodriguez her first chance to return to her native land.

Back then, she remembers, tanks and jeeps rumbled through the streets, followed by parades and banners. Castro nationalized big business, then small business, supported by the many disillusioned by Fulgencio Batista's regime. Schools raised money for tractors as part of newly instilled agricultural campaigns.

But in 1961, many religious officials, including the priests and nuns who taught at Rodriguez's private school, were kicked out of the country. Schools were shut down for a year, and educated students were sent into troubled rural and urban areas to teach other kids to read. Rumors that students would be rounded up and schooled in China or the Soviet Union began to spread.

"That's when parents started freaking out," she says. "They thought - what's going to happen next?"

The upheaval led to Operation Pedro Pan, through which last-minute exit visas were expedited for thousands of Cuban children, including Rodriguez and her younger brother.

Both were sent to Spokane, which was taking in Cuban refugees. They ended up as foster children with a family whose son, Jim Roe, is a Seattle attorney and, by sheer coincidence, also a member of the Seattle Peace Chorus.

She faces her homecoming with a reserved, matter-of-fact exterior, preferring to experience rather than analyze the event. The approach belies a warm, droll, theatrical personality that emerges as she glides into local society as easily as a duck landing on water, chatting and chuckling with cubanos on street corners and in public squares.

As do many Cuban exiles, she sends money to family members still there - U.S. dollars that power a flourishing, unequal double economy.

"The revolution is rotting from the inside with this stuff," she says. "It's still a class system: There's those who have access to tourist dollars and then there's everyone else."

The trip lets her bring money firsthand, free of high interest fees, destined for the cousin who lives in her old house. In Cuba, few houses are owned; rather, they are occupied, with rights usually passed to family members. It is a visit she chooses to make alone: The cousin shows her old pictures and spills hard-luck tales of caring for three older people, two of whom didn't get along.

During the two-week trip, Rodriguez also delivers a care package - a rubber-band-bound shoe box stuffed with hard-to-get items such as beauty-care products, pencils, garlic and a can opener - to the 76-year-old mother of a friend who left Cuba during the Mariel boat lifts of the early 1990s.

Luz Maria Dranguet and her husband of 53 years live in a dusky, spartan apartment with a 12-by-15-foot main area dominated by a bed and the lopsided former church pew that serves as their sofa. The toilet hides behind a curtain, and a bowl of raw chicken sits on a rusty counter along with flowers and boniato, or sweet potato, all of which cost about 40 pesos, or a third of the monthly pension her husband receives.

"As poor as we've been, we've never lacked," says Dranguet, a bony woman with an easy smile, melodic voice and low-slit eyes. Still, she has yet to get the eyeglasses for which she holds a 3-year-old prescription.

More than anything, Rodriguez's visit gives her the chance to see the revolution's big picture. She sees people too reliant on a system of government handouts, unprepared for the changes that will come with the passing of Castro.

"If I fault Fidel for anything," she says, "it's that he should have had the vision to know he wasn't going to be there forever. . . ." He was going to have to trust the people of Cuba to take care of themselves."

Marc Ramirez's phone message number is 206-464-8102. His e-mail address is mramirez@seattletimes.com

Betty Udesen's phone message number is 206-464-8146. Her e-mail address is budesen@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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