Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune
HAVANA - During his lengthy career, Carlos Varela has written and performed songs criticizing his nation’s one-party state. But that hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from denying Varela and up to 150 other Cuban musicians and artists visas to perform in America under a new policy that deems their travel “detrimental to the interests” of the United States.
U.S. officials say the restrictions implemented in November are among a series of measures designed to further isolate the hemisphere’s only communist regime and pressure Cuban President Fidel Castro to make democratic reforms. The officials contend that Cuban artists are using concert tours in the United States to promote the sales of CDs and other products, with a majority of the profits ending up in Cuban government coffers.
“The U.S. government is looking for ways to reduce and limit the income going to this government,” said a U. S. diplomat in Havana who spoke on the condition of not being identified. “This is one effort to squeeze the Cuban government.”
Critics of the policy say the amount of money generated by artists performing in the U.S. is minuscule compared with other Cuban financial sources, including the hundreds of millions of dollars sent annually by Cuban-Americans to relatives on the island.
The Cuban musical groups denied U.S. visas include Los Van Van, the jazz-pop band Cubanismo and Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club fame, who had to cancel a July performance at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival.
Varela’s five-city concert tour in March also was canceled, he said.
He and others contend that the visa restrictions are hurting Americans by denying them access to the island’s best performers and destroying a cultural link that can improve understanding among people despite the hostile relationship between the Cuban and U.S. governments.
“We feel disillusioned because of a decision that is part of a lack of understanding between the two (nations),” said Varela, 41. “It prevents the American people from hearing us. It’s not right.”
Guillermo Gonzalez Camejo, a legendary 77-year-old Cuban musician widely known as Rubalcaba, said he has performed four times in the U.S. but still was denied a visa that would have allowed him and other Cuban musicians to attend February’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Rubalcaba and four other Cuban acts captured all five nominations in the Traditional Tropical Latin Album category.
“We were very disappointed,” he said. “They said that we are Fidelistas and that we are with Fidel. I have been a musician my whole life. I have absolutely nothing to do with politics.”
Critics accuse the Bush administration of implementing the visa crackdown to win support among Florida’s large Cuban exile community in the upcoming presidential election. Cuban officials have used the visa denials to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Joe Garcia, executive director of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, based in Miami, said that while many Cuban musicians touring the U.S. are “apologists” for the Castro regime, denying them visas would have little impact.
“It’s a lot of smoke and no fire,” Garcia said. “This is once again the policy of red-baiting to get Cuban-Americans to light up, but it’s not about making substantive changes to the regime in Cuba.”
The U.S. played host to many of Cuba’s top acts beginning in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration’s policy of encouraging cultural and educational exchanges.
Michael Orlove, program director for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said Cuban musicians have performed at Chicago’s World Music Festival and SummerDance and at private venues such as the Old Town School of Folk Music and the HotHouse.
But President Bush has tightened travel restrictions to and from Cuba, and U.S. officials are broadly interpreting a statute that allows the president to deny U.S. entry to foreigners whose visit would be detrimental.
They also are strictly enforcing a 1985 presidential proclamation prohibiting with few exceptions Cuban government employees or Communist Party members from traveling to the United States.
“Cuban artists are compensated by the Cuban government. They fit under the rubric of Cuban government employees,” said the U.S. diplomat in Havana.
One State Department official who spoke on the condition of not being named said any Cuban who signed an official declaration last April describing the U.S. as neo-fascist for its war in Iraq also would be denied entry into the country.
The signers include Juan Formell of Los Van Van, singer Omara Portuondo, jazz pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdes and 142 other members of the national council of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists, known as UNEAC.
“It was very offensive and abusive to the United States,” the State Department official said. “If someone signed the UNEAC declaration, we don’t think that it’s appropriate for them to visit a neo-fascist nation.”
Experts challenge the Bush administration’s contention that Cuban musicians touring the U.S. bring in a windfall for the Castro regime, suggesting that at least some of the profits from U.S. record sales remain overseas and out of reach of Cuban authorities.
The embargo forbids Cuban artists from collecting more than a stipend and expenses during their U.S. concert tours, no matter how many tickets they sell.
“The Bush administration policy is that if a penny goes to the Castro regime, it’s a penny too much,” said William Martinez, a San Francisco attorney who handles visas for many Cuban musicians touring the United States.
Martinez said most Cuban musicians have given up trying to secure visas to the U.S. Still, he was surprised by Varela’s visa denial because “some of his lyrics are construed to be against the Cuban government.”
Some observers suggest that Varela may have been denied a visa because the singer has softened his social commentary in recent years and even because he played a concert in December in Venezuela, where leftist President Hugo Chavez is a key Castro ally.
But Varela dismissed such talk and said prohibiting Cuban artists from touring the U.S. will only further damage relations between the two nations.
“They want to look for ghosts where they don’t exist,” Varela said. “Cuban and American musicians can accomplish what politicians have failed to do over many years.”