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For those who stay, Horta provides not just employment but counsel. The club owner recalls a night when one of the musicians showed up after his mother had passed away. Horta gave him the keys to the building and let him stay after closing so he could play out his grief. Horta and the band members have their family squabbles too. Last summer when their repertoire was getting stale, he told them to get out of his sight until they had come up with a couple of new songs. They came back a few days later with a completely new set list.
Ironically Horta never envisioned his club as a hothouse for Miami's Cuban musicians. His initial idea was to showcase his collection of vintage Cuban film clips, which he had compiled over the years by videotaping musical scenes from Cuban movies as well as television appearances by popular bands on the island.
Horta lived five years in Paris as the Cuban cultural attache to UNESCO. He returned to Cuba to become director of the Havana International Film Festival. Horta wanted the festival to be dynamic and liberal -- he had screened Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate, a dark comedy critical of the revolution that was nominated for an Oscar in 1995, and hosted Arnold Schwarzenegger on a trip to Cuba. But Horta says his ideas were at odds with others at the film institute who subscribed to a more hard-line ideology. He defected while on a business trip to Mexico in 1994. He says he chose Miami because of the Cuban community.
Horta's arrival here with a cache of Cuban movies and filmed musical performances provoked rumors that he had stolen master copies from state archives. That, Horta insists, is ridiculous. He simply videotaped the material. Much of his collection, he adds, has been amassed since he left Cuba -- purchased from or donated by other Cuban exiles or Mexican collectors. While what he's done could be called pirating, Horta contends that the national patrimony is much better served when it is exposed to a grateful public than if it is crumbling away in humid archives in Havana.
"It might be hard to understand here in this capitalist society," says Marco Antonio Abad, a Cuban filmmaker who works at the Telemundo television network and who gave Horta some of his videos, "but we all come out of Cuba with something, whether in our hearts or our hands. To criticize Pepe is to say that a rock I have from La Caridad del Cobre was stolen. We all have something that helps us remember Cuba."
Horta's initial hope, in fact, was to make a documentary about Cuban music, a sort of Cuban That's Entertainment. He couldn't generate sufficient interest among potential investors, so he altered his idea to include a nightclub where he could show the old film clips between sets of live music.
In time Horta met Roberto Paris, a Cuban clothing designer who had lived in Puerto Rico for many years before moving to Miami. Horta told Paris about his idea and the designer agreed to loan him $50,000. "I believed in the project because something was missing here in Miami," Paris says today. "There had to be a bridge between the long-time Cuban exiles and the new people who've come recently from Cuba -- they're the ones who've brought a new breath of air to Miami."
Horta found a shuttered dive of a bar on Calle Ocho, across from the venerable Centro Vasco restaurant, which closed after a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window to protest the engagement of a Cuban singer there. Horta bought some cheap secondhand furniture, and Paris showed him how to reupholster the chairs. Horta opened on May 25, 1995, with a donated case of Scotch.
"When I opened Cafe Nostalgia, it was a question of survival," he recalls, dragging deeply on a Marlboro as he settles into a sofa at Criteria. The place immediately became a hangout for an artsy crowd of young Cuban actors, artists, and filmmakers who knew Horta from Cuba and who had come to Miami around the same time he did. But Horta found he was not so popular among other factions of the exile community.
"They called me everything from communist to Agent 007," he remembers. He received threatening phone calls. Radio commentators insulted him. Horta ignored them. "I've always been careful not to let politics into the cafe," he says. "I'm not interested in playing ball with some extremist politicians."
As the club has become popular, people who once swore they would never set foot inside have begun showing up. And in all its years, there have been no ugly incidents, although Roberto Paris vaguely recalls a man yelling, "AViva Fidel!" one night. "I think he was crazy and drunk," Paris laughs.
While the Calle Ocho venue rages on, Horta is preparing for the opening of the second Cafe Nostalgia in Miami Beach, to be located in a building adjoining the Forge restaurant on 41st Street. Forge owner Shareef Malnik says the new Cafe Nostalgia will target "artistic types, tourists, Cubans, and successful Latins who want to celebrate their success." Horta says while the new club will be fancier, he does not want it to seem pretentious.