The Salsa Doctor Is Out

Finding one of Cuba's most famous stars on either side of the Florida Straits can be downright impossible, as the musician navigates between big dreams and political realities

Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez could sit still no longer. As the torch singer onstage held a low note, he flew off his barstool and hurried toward the man with a pencil-thin mustache nursing a drink at a round table in the middle of the Radical nightclub. Gonzalez Hernandez, better known as Manolín, the Salsa Doctor, gestured frantically, signaling for the smaller man to follow him outside. The pair rushed through the empty patio and wrought-iron gates into the shadows thrown by streetlights along Coral Way at SW 28th Avenue.

All was calm on the sidewalk this Friday night last February, except for the tall mocha-colored singer who hovered over the vacationing Cuban bureaucrat with one hand pressed against the wall and the other gesticulating wildly. Each time the mustachioed man made a move to leave, the singer would call him back and pin him against the wall.

“I just want to straighten out one thing,” Manolín called to the couple waiting to drive the bureaucrat back to the house where he was staying in Kendall. Finally satisfied the Salsa Doctor walked toward the couple's car with his arm thrown over the other man's shoulders. “Aren't you afraid to be in a car with him?” he asked in mock horror. “He's a communist!” Laughing, he embraced him and then addressed the couple again: “Be very careful with him. He's a communist, and there aren't many left.”

Manolín's in-laws, Gretchen Galindo, Mario Rodriguez, and Rey Suarez, have set up shop in Miami at the Radical
Steve Satterwhite
Manolín's in-laws, Gretchen Galindo, Mario Rodriguez, and Rey Suarez, have set up shop in Miami at the Radical

Rattled, the bureaucrat settled uncomfortably in the back seat of the two-door Honda Civic. “I'm not here in an official capacity,” he confessed. “I would prefer no one know about this.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, this employee of a prominent Cuban booking agency revealed just what kind of fix the Salsa Doctor needed from him. “He wants me to set him up with some European shows,” he sighed. “But frankly I wouldn't book him anywhere. He's gotten himself so tangled up with so many people that I don't think there's any way he's ever going to get out of this mess.”

Manolín got into this mess by believing the bitter political standoff that has divided Cubans on the island from those on the U.S. mainland should not stand in the way of his becoming a superstar on both sides of the straits -- and around the world.

Four years ago Manolín was the most popular singer in Cuba. He packed the hottest nightclubs, released top-selling records, and wrote hooks that captured the mood of a changing nation. His songs so moved the dancing masses that the Castro regime used his music as a soundtrack for propaganda. By late 1997, however, the Salsa Doctor had fallen out of official favor over a song that expressed one sentiment the government did not want to hear: “Mami, Now I've Got Friends in Miami.” In the fall of 1998, he appeared to defect to the United States, then returned to Cuba. In the fall of 1999, he seemed to defect again, but his music did not take off in Miami as he had hoped. In February 2000, on the shadowy sidewalk outside Radical, he plotted to return to the island once more and rescue his career.

As the Civic whisked along the Palmetto Expressway, wind whipping through the open windows, the Cuban booking agent recited the reasons why Manolín's attempt to emigrate to Miami had gone wrong. “Partly it's just the way he is. Partly it's the system here. Artists are vulnerable in the United States,” he explained. “There are just so many people giving so much bad advice.” Two of the musicians who came to Miami with Manolín's orchestra had hit up the Cuban agent for work that week as well. “They told me they want me to get them gigs in Mexico,” he said, “but I asked them with what band? With what music?”

Wearied by the efforts of these musicians to enlist his help to “re-fect,” the agent spelled out why he believed Manolín had it good back in Cuba. “Let's say he's playing at [the popular island nightclub] Cecilia. Let's say 1000 people show up, paying $20 each. The club keeps some of that. The agency keeps some of that, but Manolín gets most of it. Let's say, easily, that he's making $18,000 a week,” he observed. “There's nowhere he's going to pull in that kind of money playing around here.”

After a few wrong turns through leafy, labyrinthine streets, the Civic pulled into a driveway in The Crossings and the bureaucrat disappeared into a two-story suburban house, the bleak prospects for the Salsa Doctor's career heavy in the humid air. Back at his desk in Havana a few weeks later, however, the bureaucrat had changed his tune. “Our relationship has never ended,” he claimed, speaking over the phone about his agency's role in booking Manolín's shows. “At this moment he is under an extended contract to work in the United States. We are working here to set up his usual summer tour through the European circuit.”

Three months after Manolín's clandestine encounter with this bureaucrat in Miami, the director of another prominent Cuban booking agency waited fruitlessly on a sidewalk in Havana to get on the guest list at the pricey Havana Café. The show on Saturday, May 20, 2000, would be Manolín's first solo appearance as a headliner on the island after his six-month stay in South Florida. “He's got everyone talking,” the director remarked to a friend. “Everyone is asking, “Is he staying or is he going?'”

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