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ALISON STEWART, host:

Cuban cultural expressions through music and art have long attracted Americans. The arts have managed to bridge a gap by created by almost a half-century-long economic embargo imposed by the United States. There have been small steps towards cooperation along the way. In 2000, President Bill Clinton allowed agricultural goods and medicine exports to Cuba. And in 1991, the U.S. Treasury Department lifted a 28-year-old ban on bringing Cuban paintings and drawings into the states.

Art lovers have since made use of this loophole in the embargo that bans other pleasures like cigars and rum, but now museum curators, collectors, and auction houses are hoping last month's change in leadership will allow even easier access to Cuba's cultural treasures. We read all about it in an article we found so interesting we decided to rip it...

(Soundbite of theme "Law and Order")

STEWART: From the headlines of the Wall Street Journal. Joining us now to talk about the new hopes of bring Cuban hopes into the States is Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, a New York art collector and co-founder of the non-profit Cuban Artist's Fund. Hi, Ben.

Mr. BEN RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS (Co-Founder, Cuban Artist's Fund): Hi. Good morning.

STEWART: So, there's a lot of different ways to get into Cuba if you're American, some legal, some a little bit more "creative," we'll say. How easy is it to bring art out of Cuba and into the United States?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: It's very easy to bring art. That's not the problem. The problem is getting into Cuba.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Yeah.

STEWART: Yeah. So how do a lot of people who are art collectors, necessarily, how do they get into Cuba, frankly?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Well, right now, most people usually do a humanitarian trip in conjunction with their visit to Cuba. So they will visit churches and some of the communities and provide medicine and clothing while they're there. So it's a very much a humanitarian trip as well as an art collecting trip.

STEWART: Which is understandable, because in Cuba, obviously, there are economic woes...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Well, there's great need, yes.

STEWART: Yeah, Lack of basic goods. I can remember I was in Cuba, gosh, like eight years ago working on a story and our fixer just said, you know, can you just leave some books?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Right.

STEWART: Can you just leave some aspirin? Things like that...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Basic necessities, yes.

STEWART: But that hasn't stopped Cuba from having this vibrant art scene. Can you explain to us the Cuban government's commitment to the arts?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Well, the Cuban government, even before the Revolution, was always committed to the arts. Cuba was the hub of art - artistic activity. You've got some of the great masters like Wifredo Lam, who's been in the collection at MOMA from the very beginning.

And after 1959, the government made a huge commitment to supporting artists from very young people who went through art schools and so forth. You have the generations of the '80s and '90s that became very well-known in the international art world when they became of age.

STEWART: So someone shouldn't assume because people necessarily live in - some people live in some primitive conditions that these are self-taught or primitive artists. Some of these are quite fine artists we're talking about.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: These are very well-trained artists. San Alejandro is one of the finest art schools in Latin America.

STEWART: When artists sell paintings to, say, Europeans or American collectors who get there, however they get there...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Right.

STEWART: Are the artists allowed to keep the money? Or does the government get involved in the process?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: In order to have artwork taken out of the country, the artist gets a permit from the Ministry of Culture and it's a form of a letter that you will present at customs one you leave. There's a tax that they pay, declaring the value of the painting and so forth. I'm not sure what the deal is, you know, how the percentage is.

It probably works similar to a gallery. There are some official galleries in Cuba, and probably, you know, they will take some percentage of whatever the artwork that is sold. A lot of artwork is sold directly from the artists' homes and studios.

STEWART: From the art that you've seen, are artists in Cuba political? Or can they be? Or is it more just about the daily lives and daily expressions?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Well, it's - you know, they're the same as artists anywhere. They create work from what they have around them and what they see around them. So obviously their local culture influences them. I think some of them are political and some of them are not. Some of them are very political. Some of them are not political at all.

STEWART: So the political art doesn't necessarily - is not necessarily confiscated or anything like that?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Not to my knowledge. There was a lot of performance art, I would say, back towards the late '80s, and - when there was a big push for art at that time. And some of that early art was very political, but most of those artists have left.

STEWART: We're talking to Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, a New York art collector and co-founder of the non-profit Cuban Artists Fund. So Ben, are people in the art world hopeful or excited now that Raul Castro has come to power? Because a lot of people say he's a bit more practical about certain matters, especially financial matters.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Yes, I'm not sure that there will be any major changes. In terms of the art world, you know, Cuba - the Cuban government, Cuban artists were always interested in selling art. I mean, it's good for them. It's good for the artists and so forth. The problems of getting into Cuba really have not been as a result of Cuba.

It's really been of U.S. policy of our inability to get there. So - and what has happened during the last couple of years is Cuban artists have really been looking toward Europe and Latin America to sell their artwork, since the - it's just so hard for Americans to go to Cuba.

STEWART: And one of the things about Cuban art, like art from China or Afghanistan or Iran or certain places, is that the attractiveness is that it's not readily available.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Right.

STEWART: Any concern that the art will become devalued if it becomes more accessible?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: I don't think so. If anything, the prices have just been going up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas is the co-founder of the Cuban Artists Fund. Thanks, Ben.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ-CUBENAS: Thank you very much.

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