Cuban Government "Kidnapping" Rotilla Music Festival, Founders Say

Last August, the Rotilla Festival brought 20,000 young Cubans to a beach near Havana for three days of rap, house, and electronic music. It was a rare moment of free speech in the tightly policed country: groups like hip-hop duo Los Aldeanos openly criticized the Communist government while performing for free late into the summer night.

This year? Not so much.

Rotilla's founders now say that the Cuban government is "kidnapping" the festival by barring them from meetings, organizing the event without them, and offering $1,000 to bands that agree to play.

Cuba's largest independent music festival, Rotilla was founded in 1998 by Michel Matos and several friends. During a press conference on Wednesday, he accused the Culture Ministry of taking over this year's event and barring him and other organizers from meetings.

"They're kidnapping, stealing our festival," said Matos, who, until now, was Rotilla's executive director.

"It's not a simple case of censorship, of them shutting it down. It's an abduction... On the one hand, they're taking it away from us and on the other hand, they are organizing it themselves through official institutions."

It wouldn't be the first time that the Cuban government -- despite its ancientness -- threatened to co-opt a popular music event. In 2009, Colombian singer Juanes's plans for a Paz Sin Fronteras concert in Havana sparked outrage among el exilio in Miami. The event went ahead anyways and was considered a success.

This time, however, the intervention of Raúl Castro & Co. is a body blow to one of Cuba's few independently financed music festivals. Although Matos admits that organizers had cooperated with the government in years past -- including dropping acts banned by the state -- Rotilla was funded by the Dutch and Spanish embassies as well as Serbian electronic music festival EXIT.

The result was a raucous, occasionally politically charged festival. Last year, for example, El B from Los Aldeanos rapped:

What moves us is the hope that someone will discuss our problems
Necessities, violence and lies of the state,
Its mechanism has become corrupt and manipulated,
And police that instead of inspiring hate make me ashamed.

From what Matos claims about the hijacking of Rotilla, those problems aren't going away any time soon. What are the odds that Los Aldeanos appears on stage again this year?

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