Hurricane Van Van

Promoter Debbie Ohanian stared down the City of Miami and won a victory in the area's latest absurdo

Whether record sales will be affected remains to be seen, but the controversy has clearly contributed to the buzz surrounding the 30-year-old band, now on its third U.S. tour. A search of America Online news groups last week showed 6319 postings about Los Van Van. (There were, in contrast, only 3118 Ricky Martin comments.)

While Los Van Van has been making Miami headlines in absentia, the group has been performing in other U.S. cities, without controversy. One night last week, band members attended a baseball game in San Francisco: the Giants vs. the Florida Marlins.

Last month, when Ohanian approached Knight Center managers about a Los Van Van concert, they were enthusiastic, she says. But after consulting with city attorney Alejandro Vilarello, Globe Facility Services (which manages the center) required that Ohanian buy five million dollars' worth of insurance. She made the purchase and also agreed to pay approximately $33,000 for security, including a boat to patrol behind the facility, and about 70 officers. She met several times with Miami police officials, and on one occasion, with FBI agents.

At first Los Van Van leader Juan Formell wanted to play the Miami Arena or the Orange Bowl. Then in early September, during a visit to the city, he toured the Knight Center with Ohanian. She clinched the deal by coming up with second-row tickets for Formell's daughter to a Backstreet Boys concert at the National Car Rental Center. On September 10 she placed ads in the Miami Heraldand El Nuevo Herald announcing the show. The backlash began swiftly on AM radio. Appearing on Radio Mambí, José Victorero, leader of the conservative exile organization Unidad Cubana's Tactical Combat Group, called for demonstrations and urged listeners to contact city officials. He termed the concert "a great shame for the exile community." Then came Carollo's shameless radio appearance with Perez-Roura.

That day a Globe Facility Services representative told Ohanian that Vilarello had requested an additional two-million-dollar insurance policy so the city could rebuild the theater if it were blown up. Then Vilarello requested that Ohanian obtain documentation from the U.S. Treasury Department confirming the Cuban musicians were not being paid for their performance.

The U.S. embargo allows bands from the island to perform in this nation as a cultural exchange. Musicians, however, cannot profit from their work. Promoters are allowed to pay only for musicians' expenses. Three federal agencies are involved: the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which grant Cuban musicians visas, and the Treasury Department, which investigates financial impropriety.

Treasury probes only take place after violations are alleged. Thus Vilarello's final request for Treasury confirmation, which required a quick response, was absurd. Several hours after Globe Facility Services managers met with Carollo in his office, the October 9 date was canceled.

If Knight Center managers thought Ohanian would go away quietly, they were wrong. "I don't see this as a Cuban issue," she says. "We don't live in Cuba; that's the point.... Didn't we go see the Bolshoi Ballet? This is what being American is: You're supposed to be able to see what you want to see. I know it's upsetting to some people, but that's not my problem, because there's freedom here."

Ohanian was not surprised when Globe Facility Services offered a new date this past week, provided that she meet insurance requirements and conjure some form of authorization from the Treasury Department. "I don't know if we won the battle, but we have established that these people can legally play here," she comments.

John de Leon, president of the Miami chapter of the ACLU , says Ohanian's persistence may result in an important precedent. "If she goes ahead and holds the concert, I think it will be a tremendous victory for the First Amendment," he says. "It will be a pivotal event because it will let the City of Miami and its officials know that they are unable to ban individuals or groups that they disagree with."

Ohanian is optimistic that the concert will go on without incident. She predicts that because of the publicity, tickets will quickly sell out. There's even a chance more dates will be added. "I think we might have to run for the entire month of October, which would serve all of these people right," she says, laughing. "One night is definitely not going to be enough."

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