If El Exilio Doesn't Get You, Uncle Sam Will

Cuban salsero Issac Delgado played Miami without incident. Then the government accused him of breaking the law.

Issac Delgado and Hugo Cancio may pay a price for success.
Delgado, a salsa sensation from Cuba, appeared April 21 at the Miami Beach night club Onyx. Cancio, a local businessman turned promoter, staged the event. In an astonishing first for Dade County's contentious Cuban exile community, no one disrupted Delgado's performance. No placard-carrying grandmothers. No bomb threats. No violence of any kind. Newspaper critics and music lovers heralded the event as the beginning of a new era in Miami's relations with the island.

But now Cancio is struggling to respond to U.S. government allegations that the Delgado concert violated the terms of the 35-year-old embargo against Cuba. Last month the Treasury Department sent Cancio a letter listing a series of purported violations, he says. If his replies don't satisfy the investigators, he could be sentenced to ten years in prison and assessed a $250,000 fine.

Delgado and his fifteen-piece band may have problems too. The feds contend that they didn't have permission to play here on that day. State Department officials say Delgado applied to perform at a festival in Massachusetts but never intended to play there. As a result, the group may be barred from receiving visas in the future. "They will have much greater scrutiny the next time they apply for a visa," says James Theis, a State Department official who works on the Cuba desk. "From our point of view, they used the Massachusetts venue as a cover to do what they wanted to do all along, which was play Miami. It was an abuse of the process."

Cancio may face the most severe punishment, though. Officials assert that the promoter violated the terms of the embargo by not securing government approval for the Onyx concert, which about 1000 people attended. Neither Cancio nor a Treasury spokeswoman would divulge details of other allegations against the promoter. Cancio says he has already penned a reply to the letter.

Cancio and other promoters complain that the embargo's rules are convoluted and enforcement is arbitrary. The law -- titled, in Cold War fashion, the Trading with the Enemy Act -- requires Cuban musicians and promoters to follow a lengthy and complicated process to stage a U.S. show. Since professional Cuban musicians are ostensibly Cuban government employees, they must receive U.S. permission to cross the Straits of Florida. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation must all review and approve applications. That can take months, although the agencies try to finish the review in three weeks. Promoters must obtain a letter of support from professional trade groups, set an itinerary, and prove that the event serves a cultural or educational purpose.

The results often aren't worth it financially, says Bill Martinez, a San Francisco lawyer who has helped promoters comply with the embargo's terms: "Ninety-nine percent of those who get involved with Cuban music end up losing money. If they get anything at all, it's very, very little."

It appears that Cancio and Delgado ignored the terms of Delgado's visa. The Cuban musician was originally slated to appear at the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts from April 17 to 19. Delgado missed those dates; he arrived in the United States just in time for the April 21 Onyx show.

Cancio is not the first promoter to be subject to government scrutiny for having brought Cuban musicians to this country. A Treasury Department spokeswoman says the department sends hundreds of letters each year asserting violations and requesting more information. "The letters give the opportunity for the respondent to present a defense," she adds.

Leo Tizol, a Puerto Rico-based promoter who arranged a U.S. tour for the famed Cuban group Los Van Van a couple of years ago, says he received a Treasury Department missive similar to the one mailed to Cancio last month. The Treasury Department accused him of paying the musicians, a violation of the embargo. He denied the charge in a response mailed more than four months ago. He is still awaiting a reply. "I won't work with [Cuban musicians] again," he vows.

Cancio contends the letters set a chilling precedent. He compares them to Cuba's infamous neighborhood watch groups, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Such groups intimidate Cubans by requiring neighbors to snitch on one another. "You cannot see your accuser or know what the basis is for the allegations," he complains. "It's the same thing as the CDRs. When does this turn into harassment?"

What will be the legacy of the Delgado concert? State Department officials say that in the past they often tried to dissuade Cuban groups from performing in Miami because they expected violence. But, noting the lack of protest at Delgado's show, the department gave visas to the Cuban group Vocal Sampling on June 10 for a U.S. tour.

 
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