San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Manuel Obregón: From Pianist to Politico

One of the most recognized faces in modern Costa Rican music is the new face of the country’s culture these days.

Composer Manuel Obregón, 48, best known as co-founder of the contemporary musical group Malpaís, was named Culture Minister by President Laura Chinchilla in March and took the helm at the ministry last month.

Obregón was a familiar figure in Chinchilla’s presidential campaign, a decision for which he took some heat from the artistic and environmental communities.

“I became involved because I thought it would be most beneficial to the social and environmental sectors,” he says.

Though it may be too soon to tell what mark Obregón will put on his office (the position), he has already put his mark on his office (the physical space). Brightly colored paintings by Costa Rican artist Florencia Urbina decorate the white walls of his workspace in the ministry complex in the restored former National Liquor Factory in central San José. His beloved Yamaha grand piano occupies a prominent space there too.

“Never enough time to play it these days,” he says, laughing.

The new minister spoke with The Tico Times last week about the government’s role in culture, the artistic community’s role in politics, and the first month of his musician to-minister transition. Excerpts follow:

TT: We all toss around the word “culture” without thinking about what it means. How do you define the term?

MO: Culture is that which marks a country’s own identity and that of a person from that country. But it doesn’t just take in art. Culture also includes education and history.

Is Costa Rican culture in any danger of disappearing with the influence of worldwide culture?

It can survive and it has survived under difficult conditions. It’s unbelievable how strong our culture is. However, there have been many lost art forms that are impossible to recover. So, on one hand culture has great strength. On the other hand, there are dangers, much like what happens in nature with species that become extinct.

Many countries don’t have a government institution in charge of culture. What role should the government play in a nation’s culture?

We’re lucky to have a Culture Ministry that has existed for 40 years. I consider that a great democratic success, that culture can be a commodity and be supported by the government.

But the form used in the United States seems good to me too. Culture does not come directly from the state, but there is government support for private (cultural) foundations.

Whether or not it belongs directly to the state, the most important thing is the access people have to culture.

Looking at it from the opposite direction, what role can or should the artistic community play in the politics of a country?

I think the arts and creative sector should become more involved in at least the direction the country is heading. I think we can learn from what happens in other countries. I like it when artists in the United States become involved in campaigns and give their opinions. (The country group) Dixie Chicks took positions against George W. Bush and were strongly criticized for it. I think that would have happened if the other party had won too. It’s a risk as with all things, but you do it with faith and conviction.

You received much criticism for becoming involved in the Chinchilla campaign.

Much criticism was directed at me by people concerned with the environment who thought the government was against their positions. I enjoyed the experience very much despite the criticism. This is the first time I’ve ever participated in a political campaign. I was inspired very much by Laura Chinchilla’s confidence and charisma. The campaign was hard, but that was natural. It was a political campaign.

Taking this post represents a huge shift in gears for you. What are the challenges and rewards in making such a change?

It still hasn’t been very much time. Up until now we’ve been assembling the team and marking off the field. We’re going to begin to play.

There’s been much enthusiasm. Artistic groups are ready to make a change. We can generate something collectively. It’s been a personal sacrifice for me, but the reward will come at the collective level.

Speaking of teams, one of the challenges seems to have been the assembling of yours. There was some resistance.

I think that was just a phase, but the changes we want to generate will mean a struggle during these four years and possibly after too. We’re talking about changes in how to define and project the country’s culture, and that will generate resistance at times from the most conservative sectors. I think it’s a normal process.

You have spoken of the passage of a National Culture Law. What would such a measure entail?

It would strengthen the budget the government assigns to culture. We are still one of the ministries with the smallest budget, so, at least, we need to codify the role that the ministry plays in the culture of the country. The law would also strengthen the image that artists have in society. Artists are a group that has no social security. It’s a marginalized sector of society. The law would also make sure that people in rural areas have access to culture. We could construct cultural centers in rural communities.

Can this be accomplished with such a small budget?

No, not just with the budget of the Culture Ministry, but there are alliances that can be formed with other (government bodies), for example, with the Education Ministry to bring programs to schools, or with municipalities to bring art to their communities.

What are your other goals for the next four years?

It’s interesting to look at other countries. I’m a huge fan of (North) American music … jazz, blues, rock, gospel … (North) Americans feel very proud of their music. It’s their folklore. Costa Rica still hasn’t reached that stage. There are people who feel that folkloric music is something inferior. Strengthening that identity is our goal. We can support initiatives to begin the process, of what it means to be Costa Rican and how we see ourselves in a globalized world.


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