Slaves to the Ritmo

It was a grand evening of poetry and song at the James L. Knight Center. So why did Radio Ritmo pull its sponsorship of singer Alberto Cortez?

The partisan political waters of Miami have never been easy to predict or, for that matter, to navigate. As the 1990 snubbing of Nelson Mandela proved, there are political agendas to be addressed and Cuban-exile honchos to be appeased before a hero can receive his plaudits locally. Last week musician/poet Alberto Cortez came to town, only to be ostracized by a Cuban-American-owned radio station, yet another reminder that the exile sensibility is as virulent as ever, and is a law unto itself.

Cortez, a popular Argentinean troubadour who's lived in Spain for more than 30 years, has received praise worldwide for his individual brand of musical and lyrical satire. A studio artist since 1965, his records have sold well everywhere; Cortez is one of the few Latin artists who have succeeded in crossing regional and cultural boundaries. The media has showered him with praise: music critic Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote of Cortez's 1989 Carnegie Hall debut: "Hope, friendship, idealism, and poetry animate the songs of Alberto Cortez...he had concertgoers hanging on every word and every note."

But being a world-class performer (not to mention a noted environmentalist and humanitarian) isn't all it's cracked up to be - not in Miami, anyway. Cortez was a promotional cause celebre when he arrived this past Saturday to perform his music and recite his poetry at the James L. Knight Center.

The events leading up to the concert by Cortez and his famous Argentinean colleague, Facundo Cabral - who, like Cortez, is a singer and poet, albeit more inspired by mysticism than politics - had little to do with art and plenty to do with name-calling and hardball politics. WRTO-FM (98.3) also known as Radio Ritmo, handed the artists the equivalent of a promotional blackball last month, canceling its sponsorship of their concert, evidently because Cortez had performed in Castro's Cuba more than ten years ago.

Cortez's New York-based booking agents, Nestor Rodriguez Lacoren and Ivan Acosta of Latin Culture Productions say the negotiations had started uneventfully enough. "We called them sometime in April to set up the sponsorship and they were enthusiastic," recalls Rodriguez Lacoren. "Our liaison in Miami told us that Charles Fernandez [President of VivAmerica Media Group, which owns Radio Ritmo and its AM sister, Radio Mambi] was delighted with the idea."

Fernandez put the agents in touch with his assistant, Martha Fernandez, the assistant promotions director for VivAmerica, who mapped out a tentative arrangement between Radio Ritmo and Latin Culture Productions in a May 1 letter. In exchange for a $2500 check and 200 complimentary tickets, Ritmo would air 200 promotional spots (beginning May 5 and running through the May 30 concert date), broadcast a telephone interview with Alberto Cortez, and run an unspecified number of ten-second announcements throughout the month. There was only one stipulation: "Must be approved and scheduled by Mr.Fernandez."

On May 7 Martha Fernandez mailed a "revised proposal," which noted that a check for $2500 had been received on May 1 and which didn't include any further reference to Charles Fernandez (other than sending him a copy of the letter). Then suddenly, a week later, the assistant promotions director faxed a notice of cancellation to New York: "I regret to inform you that the above referenced concert promotion has been canceled due to unfavorable response from our listeners.... Community leaders have informed us that the airing of the Cortez promotion may result in problems within the community. As you are well aware, Mr. Cortez has made comments which have insulted the Cuban exile community." Fernandez reminded them that, under the terms of their contract with Radio Ritmo, the station reserved the right to cancel.

The $2500 check was returned to the agents.
Acosta deems the view of Cortez "ludicrous. I know Cortez, and he's repeated publicly many, many times that he's never been a supporter of Fidel Castro. Nor has he ever insulted the Cuban community. Actually, when Cortez performed in Cuba all those years ago, he got into a shouting match at his concert with a high-ranking functionary from Granma [Cuba's Communist Party newspaper]. He's been an outcast there ever since." The incident, Acosta explains, occurred when Cortez sang one of his most famous songs, Una vueltita mas, in which the narrator/singer, in the name of all humanity, beseeches the leaders of the nuclear-arsenal club (which, in that era, consisted of Leonid Brezhnev, Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Valery Giscard-D'Estaing, Menachem Begin, and Indira Gandhi) not to push the button. Not very incendiary commentary, but sufficient enough to upset the castrista party line.

Rodriguez Lacoren immediately wrote to VivAmerica's chairman of the board, Amancio Suarez, calling the cancellation a "misunderstanding" that should be corrected immediately, and reminding Radio Ritmo that "Facundo Cabral has never been to Cuba or expressed support for said government." The Cortez incident in Cuba was also described and clarified. According to the agents, Suarez did not respond.

With no sponsor or outlet for publicity, Rodriguez Lacoren and Acosta approached WQBA-FM (107.5). Despite that station's well-known conservative editorial slant, the agents successfully worked out a deal to promote their event. But WQBA's public position, given a week before the concert, suggests no great enthusiasm. "Their arrangement with us is strictly a commercial transaction. They paid for advertising spots and we're running them. We are advertising the concert as part of our agreement," said Omar Fernandez, WQBA's director of public relations. As to the radio station's opinions regarding Cortez, Fernandez added, "We are not the sponsors of the concert. We don't play Alberto Cortez on the air here. We neither support nor reject Alberto Cortez." According to Acosta, WQBA did not insist upon having its logo prominently displayed on the concert pamphlets and the program booklet, as Ritmo had done.

The party line at Radio Ritmo is equally distanced, but far more convoluted. When asked to comment about the canceled sponsorship, Amancio Suarez begged off completely. "I don't know anything about what you're telling me, sir," responded VivAmerica's chairman of the board. "I will have to check with the promotions department." Martha Fernandez said she recalled the incident, acknowledged the letters and their content, but refused to comment. Betty Pino, a Ritmo talk-show hostess and a personal friend of Cortez, did not return phone calls requesting comment. Enrique Landin, VivAmerica's general sales manager, did call, saying he'd been ordered by Suarez to explain what happened: "The reason was monetary," he said. "We couldn't cover all the expenses for the concert."

When he was reminded of Martha Fernandez's letters to Latin Promotions, Landin said curtly, "I don't know anything about those letters. That is our answer. Thank you for your attention." Then he hung up.

Nestor Rodriguez Lacoren remains convinced that the exile community's ultra-conservative political leanings are at the heart of the Ritmo rebuff. "But let me tell you something," says Cortez's agent. "It's one thing to be right-wing. It's another to be an imbecile.

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