Cuba Culture

What is lost by denying visas to Cuban artists? Hearts and minds

Posted February 10, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

BY ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ | Miami Herald Opinion | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The decision by the U.S. government to deny visas to Cuban musicians invited to attend the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles yesterday is in sync with the sentiment of many in Miami’s Cuban community. But, how smart is it?

According to Friday’s Herald, a State Department official said that this denial was meant “to prevent the flow of dollars through compensation received by the artists, considered to be government employees, from reaching Cuba’s coffers.’‘

This is precisely the argument made by Cuban exile groups who have lobbied for exclusion of Cuban nationals from the Grammy ceremony over the past few years—the issue over which the Latin Grammy Awards, given under the same umbrella as the national Grammy, moved from Miami to Los Angeles in 2001. That ceremony never took place, for it was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001.

The 2001 Latin Grammy show was to exclude performances by Cuban nationals—despite the rumors that had circulated freely in Little Havana that year. But plenty of Cuban artists came to watch the awards, dreaming of that golden gramophone, all of whom, according to the academy rules, had been invited to the ceremony.

I was there, too, for at the time I was the executive director of the Latin Recording Academy, the organization that gives the Latin Grammy Awards.

On Sept. 12, academy executives and volunteers, visiting artists, show producers, the owner of the hotel that hosted the visitors and former talk-show host Merv Griffin concocted the first benefit show for the families of the victims of the attack. We called it Concierto Para Los Heroes, and it was one bang-up show. Juanes and his band did an acoustic set. Ruben Blades sang in English. Merv Griffin sang in Spanish. Even Kevin Spacey joined the show, with a heartbreaking rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water.

A hot Cuban act nominated for a Latin Grammy in the salsa category, Isaac Delgado and his band, also performed. But we had a hard time finding the group for our hastily assembled show. Why? Because its members had all gone to donate blood for the New York victims—that’s what these artists who now would be considered ‘‘detrimental to the interests of the United States’’ were doing.

Next time around, also in L.A., no Cuban artists got visas to come. Nor last year to the Miami show. Nor this year to the national show in L.A.

Cuba has been and is a musical powerhouse, and you can bet that any Grammy show will have Latin nominees. Like Lázaro Ros, who only records sacred music of the faith known as Santería. Or Chucho Valdes, master jazz pianist. Seeking freedom, many Cuban artists defect. But Cuba is such a fountainhead of music that it would take a whole dynasty of Castros (may the saints preserve us!) to drain it of Grammy-deserving musicians.

So now we are preventing the flow of dollars to Castro’s coffers. How much money are we talking about? Cuba is a musical powerhouse, not a commercial one. The best-selling Cuban CD ever was made by an American, Ry Cooder. No one except hard-core Santería followers buy Ros, and even the ever popular Valdes is not exactly Britney Spears.

What is lost by denying visas to these artists? The usual. Hearts and minds. Both the U.S. government and the Miami exile community—reviled by Castro as ‘‘the Mafia’’—look like yahoos. Once more.

‘‘It’s stupid to protest music,’’ a militant but astute exile told me during a Miami Compay Segundo concert that had to be vacated because of a bomb threat. “You only make enemies that way, because everybody loves music. Instead, you [should] use the media exposure of a musical event to talk about political prisoners, government oppression, things that most people can get behind. You will convince no one that music is evil.’‘

So now the Cuban government trots out Ibrahim Ferrer, the irresistibly charming old singer, rescued from obscurity by the Buena Vista Social Club. Look, they say, this is the ‘‘terrorist’’ the U.S. fears. And they—and the whole world—have a good laugh at our expense.

Some have said that Castro’s biggest ally is the Miami exile community, which follows the script written in Havana to the letter. The Bush administration is giving it a good reading as well.

Let’s give ourselves a Grammy. Heck, let’s give ourselves a Coral Negro, Castroite Cuba’s version of the Oscar.

Enrique Fernández is The Herald’s features editor.

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