HAVANA (Reuters) - With U.S.-Cuba relations at their lowest point since President Barack Obama took office last year, Cuban singer Carlos Varela will launch a six-city U.S. tour next month with hopes of bringing the two countries a little closer.
Varela, often referred to as Cuba's Bob Dylan, will start in Los Angeles with a concert on May 5, then work his way across the country for a final show on May 15.
Varela, 47, last performed a concert tour in the United States in 1998 but put on an impromptu show for members of Congress in Washington in December while lobbying for new U.S. policy toward communist-led Cuba.
Varela and his band will tour the United States amid new tensions triggered by the December arrest in Cuba of a U.S. contractor suspected of espionage and the February death of a Cuban political prisoner on a hunger strike.
Obama, who took office in January 2009, said early on he wanted a "new era" in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations and took modest steps toward rapprochement.
But he has adopted a harsher tone in recent weeks, saying Cuba has not reciprocated and has in fact shown its same old "clenched fist" with the arrest of the American and mistreatment of island dissidents.
Cuba, in turn, has stepped up criticism of Washington in state-run media, and accused it of orchestrating, with Europe, an international media campaign against the island.
The bearded, black-clad Varela told Reuters in a recent interview his songs, known for their metaphorical social criticism, cannot by themselves bridge the political gap between the two countries.
"But they can touch a man's heart. And it is men who wage wars, build hatred, separation, borders and religions," he said. "We musicians often are closer to the people than politicians," he said peering through dark glasses during a break in rehearsals at a warehouse near Karl Marx Theater.
His concert tour will be the latest in a series of cultural exchanges under the Obama administration, which views them as a way of increasing people-to-people contact with Cuba.
Cuban musicians including the salsa band Los Van Van and Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo have crossed the Straits of Florida to perform for American audiences.
Under the Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, Cuban performers, including Varela, were mostly prevented from playing in the U.S. He was denied a visa in 2004.
U.S. band Kool and the Gang played at Havana's Anti-Imperialist Tribunal on December 20.
Varela believes the cultural exchanges will survive renewed U.S.-Cuban hostility and predicts more U.S. musicians soon will play in Cuba.
"Art in general can contribute a lot to relations among neighbors," Varela said. "We can't spend so many years so far away and yet so close."
In addition to Los Angeles, Varela's other U.S. stops will include Oakland, Chicago, Boston and New York City. He will also play private events in San Francisco and Sonoma, California, and a concert on May 16 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Editing by Jeff Franks and Todd Eastham