Blank wall could be canvas in U.S.-Cuba thaw


This article by Michael Matza appeared in Philadelphia’s Inquirer.
The Cine Teatro, a cavernous theater of 1,250 seats, presents movies in this gritty city of 140,000, where the taxis are horse-drawn buggies, Che Guevara’s portrait overlooks the main drag, and many buildings have battered facades.

One wall that is smooth and clean is the northern side of the movie house – 90 yards long, seven yards high.

On it, muralists from Cardenas and Philadelphia hope to paint images to inspire and celebrate better U.S.-Cuba relations. Working together, they want to demonstrate how a joint project on public art can help dispel decades of distrust between historic enemies.

The project, which awaits a concept paper and about $40,000 in funding, is very much a work in progress, but has buy-in from both sides.

“The theme of the mural has yet to be decided,” Mauricio Gonzalez Artiles, 46, president of Cardenas’ nongovernmental Association of Cuban Artisans and Artists, said at a cafe near his office.

But the goal is clear: “Promote friendship” and be among the first groups to capitalize on the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, including the easing of some travel restrictions, after Presidents Obama and Raul Castro issued policy directives last December.

One suggested theme for the mural would include images of the Cuban and American flags, because Cardenas and Philadelphia are both where their nation’s flags first flew.

“In that way, they are sister cities,” said Maria Teresa Clark, president of the Cardenas Historical Society.

Tuesday is flag day here, commemorating the creation of Cuba’s flag in 1850, said Clark. Cardenas plans to celebrate with a march and lectures.

Under the program outlined by supporters, artists with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program would travel to Cuba to work beside Cuban artists for 10 days. If that goes well, a second phase to bring Cuban artists to Philadelphia for a similar undertaking is a possibility.

Pamela Molina Martin, 64, of Ambler, a Cuba-phile who has visited the island dozens of times on humanitarian-aid missions and as an export-business consultant, conceived the idea. Beginning last year, she proposed it in Philadelphia and Cardenas. Her husband, Luis, was born in Havana.

“I’ve been working as a citizen diplomat to try to end the embargo, lobbying Congress, the State Department, and anyone who would listen,” said Martin, who likes the idea of presenting the Cuban and U.S. flags.

On aid trips to Cuba carrying suitcases filled with bandages, antacids, and over-the-counter remedies, Martin often visited a clinic in Cardenas and grew attached to the town’s people. Now, every time she visits, Cuba she goes there.

“It’s a schlep,” she said. “About 21/2 in the car from Havana.”

At first, Martin worked through Cardenas’ mayor, Jorge Luis Mesa.

“Then, when I got to know Mauricio,” the artist-association president, she said, “I told him all about the project – and about Jane.”

That would be Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts.

In an interview, Golden said murals have the capacity to “build bridges between people who have had a conflict, and by extension between their countries.”

Going to Cuba, she said, would not be the first time her group has worked in a communist country. Recently, Mural Arts participated on a three-mile-long mural in Vietnam of Hanoi’s 1,000-year history.

Hard and fast feelings about the Vietnam War, she said, “all went away” amid the realization that the people of Hanoi “want good things for their city, just as we do.”

Shepherding the U.S.-Cuba mural project will be a challenge, said Golden, but the possible payoff is big.

“If we look at this as a project about beauty and hope and trying to build connections,” she said, “then perhaps it could work. At the same time, I know people who feel very strongly [against] Cuba and I respect their feelings as well. Is there a way we can get past that? Why not try?”

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