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All of which makes the surreal, often ludicrous, tangle of exile politics here in Miami somewhat refreshing. True it's a continual frustration to have exciting Cuban musicians tour through the American heartland, yet be forced to bypass Miami because of their refusal to pledge fealty to the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa. And if fears of right-wing protests or State Department machinations aren't enough to stymie concerts, Miami's Latin-music scene is just as often a victim of the flaky promoters who have stepped into the void left by most professional concert bookers, who choose simply to avoid the chaos altogether. Yet it's also heartening to think that significant numbers of people find music to be something worth protesting, as something more than just another good to be bought and sold. However odious the reactionary political viewpoints of Miamian pop royalty such as the Estefan clan may be, it's touching to see they actually care about matters beyond their next platinum-record award, and are willing to wield their influence accordingly. Try traveling to other cities and proposing that music at its best is more than mere entertainment. You'll receive some funny looks.
Thanks to Washington, D.C.'s continued stomping around Latin America, however, Miami's heightened awareness of the cultural component in pop shows no signs of slackening. If not from Cubans, Nicaraguans, or Salvadorans, then from the next decade's beneficiaries of our nation's "low-intensity" wars. Like, say, Colombia.
"In a way I'm glad the situation in Colombia has reached a crisis," says Steven Castro, who along with partner, Rick Garrido, heads up the Beta Bodega electronica-focused record label. "If things weren't so bad, do you think you'd see these right-wing assassinations of journalists on the cover of the Herald? It'd be buried in the back."
Castro's response to the civil war in Colombia has been to fuse his concern with a passionate involvement in the local experimental electronic scene. A graphic designer by trade (he works with Garrido at the South Beach design and printing firm, the Plex), Castro has specifically fashioned Beta Bodega's releases with carefully crafted art and liner notes to raise awareness about Latin America. Gathering artists such as Miami duo Phoenecia's Romulo Del Castillo, as well as national figures like Minneapolis's Jake Mandell, the label's latest release is B2, named after the CIA-trained death squad that wreaked havoc on Colombia in the '80s. Much of Castro's fervor for the issue came from a visit he made to Cali last year.
"We were driving out to the countryside," he recalls, "and we'd pass these villages that looked like Swiss cheese. Every single building was nothing but bullet holes. My mother grew up in a village in Costa Rica just like these, and seeing this made me so mad. Straight up these are the most peaceful, humble people. It just makes me sick the way they're exploited and killed, as if they were nothing but animals. And the cities are no safer. There's no law there. If you don't get robbed by a corrupt cop or a street thug, you'll get shot by a cartel guy or a soldier."
What was particularly disturbing to Castro upon his return to Miami was the press's vilification of the one societal force he believes is actually trying to do some good: the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"You read in the papers in Miami about the FARC's kidnappings, but they never tell you the whole story. The FARC is fighting for a cause. The reason they do what they do isn't for money; they're just trying to look out for the people." Castro cites the history of Colombia's Left: In the '80s the M-19 guerrilla forces came in from the cold and joined the electoral political process, only to have their leaders murdered along with more than 30,000 followers. Thus, while the FARC is certainly guilty of its own share of human-rights abuses, the recent rash of newspaper pieces profiling the subjects of guerrilla kidnappings elicits little sympathy from Castro.
"These rich Colombians, who have the money to travel to Miami, come here and cry, and everybody listens," he says angrily. "What about the Colombians who can't afford to come here? Whose lives are in danger from the government? It's always this way. It was the same thing with the rich Cubans who came to Miami when Castro came to power. They made a lot of noise, but nobody cares about the poor Cubans who might have benefited from the revolution. People forget that all of Cuba was one big Mafia town, like Las Vegas, with brothers selling their sisters right at the airport."