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Folk song legend Rodriguez heads for Carnegie Hall; wonders if its time for Cuba to change

HAVANA (AP) — Three decades after he last played New York, Cuban legend Silvio Rodriguez is headed to Carnegie Hall, at a moment when he and other celebrated island folk singers are raising unusually open questions about their country's communist system.

Rodriguez, now 63, has been a sort of folk-song poet laureate of Fidel Castro's revolution in recent years, performing at important official events and even serving in Cuba's parliament for a time, though many admire him most for his pogniant lyrics and haunting melodies.

Yet the June 4 concert in New York — which still hinges on U.S. government approval of his visa — may show Americans a more complex Cuba than many expect.

Rodriguez is still firmly on the side of the socialist system Castro built, but his latest album suggests there need to be adjustments if it is going to survive.

"Against disenchantment, offer hope," he sings on the album "Segunda Cita," or "Second Date," which was released in March. "Overcome the 'r' in revolution," the song goes — alluding to the uprising that swept Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959, and to almost everything in Cuba that has happened since.

"If we don't change, they are going to change us," Rodriguez wrote in response to written questions from The Associated Press, "and that's not what I want to happen to my country."

He added that, "I hope evolution takes us, as the angel in the song says, right up to the crossroads where we made the wrong decision and we rectify that."

It's light criticism by any measure — and Rodriguez has been coy when asked to shed light on what he meant.

He also read a statement defending the Cuban government — but did not sing — during a recent "Concert for the Homeland" in Havana. And he plunged into an unusual, public debate with one of the Castro government's fiercest critics, Carlos Alberto Montaner — that nonetheless raised eyebrows in Cuba and abroad for the mere fact that Rodriguez would reply to the dissident. Cuba's official media describes Montaner as a CIA agent.

Rodriguez has sometimes broached thorny subjects uncomfortable for the government, but songs like "Playa Giron," a denunciation of the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, have become anthems of the revolution and even his small jabs at its single-party communist system come as a surprise.

Stronger dissent has come from other leading members of Cuba's Nueva Trova movement in recent months — at least during tours abroad.

Folk singer Carlos Varela told a Miami television station last week that he admired the Damas de Blanco, a support group for the wives and mothers of Cuban political prisoners which the government dismisses as paid stooges of Washington.

Varela said he thought it was "fantastic" that members of the group whose name translates to "Ladies in White," have been nominated for a Noble Peace Prize. He also bluntly denounced the "acts of repudiation" by government supporters who surrounded the Damas and shouted insults at them for hours several times in recent weeks.

In March, another top Cuban folk singer, Pablo Milanes, defended a Cuban dissident hunger striker who is demanding the release of political prisoners and told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that Cuba's aging leaders "are stuck in time."

"History should advance with new ideas and new men," said Milanes, who also was once a member of the communist government's parliament.

Rodriguez and Milanes are barely on speaking terms. But they and Varela are allowed to travel overseas freely, unlike most ordinary Cubans — for whom permission to travel abroad is costly and hard to get.

Citing an example of erroneous policies in his comments to the AP, Rodriguez mentioned the "revolutionary offensive" of 1968, when the government nationalized all businesses, taking over everything from elegant department stores to mom-and-pop soda shops.

Rodriguez characterized the move as "the Cuban state deciding to dabble in national commercialism up to the craziest of limits, including bureaucratizing French-fry stands."

"We are still paying for that," he said.

U.S. officials have yet to approve Rodriguez's visa and they did not respond in time last year, when he wanted to travel to New York for a tribute to another folk legend, Pete Seeger.

Rodriguez, however, said he doesn't expect problems.

"I trust that now they will give me a visa," he said.

Though political relations have not significantly improved between the United States and Cuba under President Barack Obama, cultural exchanges involving musicians from both countries are becoming more common.

Scores of Cuban artists have played American cities of late and the island's 89-year-old prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso, will return next month to New York and the American Ballet Theater, one of the places where she got her start in dance. U.S. funk pioneers Kool & the Gang also won permission for a recent show in Havana.

Rodriguez is considered by many to be Latin America's Bob Dylan, and he and Milanes are founding members of the "Nueva Trova," which combined music and revolutionary politics.

Rodriguez also plans shows in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. He recalled last playing New York in 1978, singing at a theater on Broadway.

"At 5 o'clock in the afternoon it was full," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

Rodriguez called playing Carnegie Hall "fantastic," but is careful not to get too hung up on playing famous venues for the first time: "I'm a bit too old for that."