Cuba's Finest Banned

When the Cuban dance band Los Van Van played the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in June, festival president Dick Rosenzweig told the Los Angeles Times that the audience reaction was unlike anything he had seen in the event's nineteen-year history. A Times critic described the fervor at the stadium as "a musical variation on the storming of the Berlin Wall." Two weeks later pianist Chucho Valdes and a spectacular new incarnation of his legendary Latin jazz group Irakere showed up a tepid Tito Puente on the stage of Carnegie Hall. That same weekend New York Latins reveled in the dusty pit in front of Central Park's Summer Stage, shouting back the words to every song performed by salsero Issac Delgado. And last month NG La Banda led a conga line a thousand people strong through the lobby of Lincoln Center's venerable Avery Fisher Hall.

This summer Cuban musicians toured the United States at a rate not seen since before the revolution, returning home with proof positive that their music can draw large American audiences, something that might have seemed impossible to them a decade ago.

Logically, the MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Market, an industry trade conference scheduled to begin September 8 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, should be the ideal venue to capitalize on the recent Cuban music renaissance. Numerous companies who record or distribute Cuban music, and even some celebrated bands, made preliminary plans to attend the event.

"To me it was a no-brainer," says Jimmy Durchslag, owner of Bembe Records, a small northern California label that specializes in Cuban music. "I was really looking forward to going to Miami, introducing myself, and getting my product out there."

Officials from Dade's Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) seemed equally enthusiastic. Last year they pledged $125,000 in county grants and corporate support to MIDEM and made a deal that would ensure that the annual music fete takes place in the Miami Beach Convention Center for the next four years. (GMCVB staffers estimated that the MIDEM convention would feed $17.5 million into the local economy this year alone.)

Then something terrible happened: Dade County politics.
Specifically, GMCVB officials invoked a 1996 administrative order that forbids the county to do business with any entity that does business with Cuba, directly or through a third party. As a result, the MIDEM conference now finds itself in disarray, with several record companies opting to withdraw. MIDEM officials have expressed regret over the county's policies. Nonetheless, they have told representatives of Cuban record labels that they are not welcome at the Miami conference and that their bands cannot play.

Officials from GMCVB and the County Attorney's Office, meanwhile, are still divided over the exact meaning of the order. Mayco Villafana, GMCVB's vice president for corporate communications, maintains that banning Cuban acts and products at the conference is enough to satisfy the anti-Cuba rule. But the County Attorney's Office argues for a stricter interpretation. The order should have forbidden GMCVB and its government partners -- which include Dade County and the City of Miami Beach -- to enter into an agreement with MIDEM in the first place, since the Paris-based organization has done business with Cuba's state-run record label Egrem for years.

To legal observers the question raised by the MIDEM brouhaha is more fundamental: Is Dade County violating the U.S. Constitution?

"Our position is that this is a violation of the First Amendment and the Trading with the Enemy Act as modified by the Berman Amendment," says Dade County ACLU vice chairman John de Leon. The 1988 Berman Amendment allows for the legal import and export of informational materials like books, art, films, and music to and from Cuba. Under the amendment, U.S. record companies can license and distribute existing Cuban recordings.

"From our standpoint it's a fairly straightforward First Amendment case, in light of the Berman Amendment, which was recognition by the United States that our country would try to promote freedom of speech in totalitarian countries," de Leon explains. "Apparently Miami has decided those things aren't applicable here." De Leon says the ACLU is prepared to go to federal court to fight GMCVB's exclusion of Cuban musicians and their representatives from the MIDEM conference.

"My first response to [the MIDEM issue] is to laugh and say this [order] is not valid," says attorney Bruce Rogow, a First Amendment expert. The current controversy calls to Rogow's mind the 1991 case he won concerning the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture. In that instance a federal judge ruled that the City of Miami could not rescind the museum's lease on the grounds that works by Cuban artists from the island were being shown there. "The county is imposing foreign policy," he says. "People have a constitutional right to assemble, to speak and to share information."

GMCVB's Villafana maintains that the county is within its rights to determine who it will and will not do business with. "Laws are meant to be interpreted," he says. "This will be decided in court if it comes to that." According to the 1996 order, anyone entering into a contract with Dade County must sign a "Cuba affidavit," swearing that they do not do business with Cuba, engage in any transaction involving Cuban goods, or subcontract with any entity that does business with Cuba.

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