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

The Salsa Doctor's high spirits were dampened as he learned just how difficult it would be to realize his dream of recording in the United States. “Manolín fell into a depression,” observes his estranged wife Rodriguez. “He was playing at Starfish, but that was just to cover the expenses of the musicians.” Shortly after the run at Starfish began, Manolín moved out of the Travelodge and into a spare room in Ohanian's apartment.

The promoter first heard Manolín's music in 1997, when she and songwriter Desmond Child stopped on their way from Havana to Pinar del Río to buy a cassette from a street vendor. “We asked him for the best and he gave us Manolín,” remembers Ohanian. “That whole entire trip to Havana was about looking for Manolín. We would get somewhere and people would say, “Oh, you just missed him. He just left.'”

The shows at Starfish drew a supportive core of young, recent immigrants from the island, but even at capacity the crowds could never approach the masses the singer attracted in Havana -- and the club rarely was that full. Despite the numbers Ohanian said of the response: “People love him. He really seduces the audience. A lot of singers don't understand that any more. A good voice is important, but seduction is everything.”

At La Maison the Doctor is right back where he began
Celeste Fraser Delgado
At La Maison the Doctor is right back where he began

The singer's power of seduction was such that the promoter did her best to keep him in the United States. Ohanian took over the bill for the band's second month at the Travelodge and took on the task of renewing the orchestra's month-to-month visa extension, a guarantee the group would be performing legally for the duration of their stay. Manolín hoped to remain in the United States for twelve months plus one day, long enough to make him eligible for U.S. residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The restructuring of the Cuban recording industry that helped make him a star in the 1990s, however, also gave Cuban recording contracts an international reach that could not be escaped by defection. “Things didn't work out the way he wanted,” said his brother Lazaro Gonzalez. “He didn't know the dimensions of the contract [with Caribe]. There were important record labels that were very interested in him, but then they would look at the contract and see that it's internationally binding.” Among the interested parties scared off by the Caribe contract was Cuban-American pop songwriter Desmond Child, who had hoped to enlist Manolín's gift for hooks on the upcoming release by Ricky Martin.

Throughout his six-month stay, Manolín waged a campaign to be released from his contract with Caribe, sending faxes back and forth to Cuban officials, offering the label a percentage of his future sales, and enlisting lawyers to intervene on his behalf. Ohanian even made a stop at the Caribe offices on one of her trips to Havana, but the representatives from the label did not receive her.

In the meantime the folks at Caribe tried to find Manolín. Seju Monzon, the producer of In Good Faith, said over the phone from Spain in April 2000: “He goes someplace, then he disappears, then he shows up somewhere else. All of a sudden he slipped out of my sight. His contract is not over; it's stopped; it's on standby. I'd like to catch up with him one day and sit down and really talk to him, but it seems like he spends more time in Miami these days than in Cuba.” Manuel Rodda, the director of Caribe's Havana office, even tried tracking down the AWOL performer while on a visit to his daughter in South Florida. By the time Rodda had arrived, Manolín had skipped town for a tour in Italy. “We had agreed that we would get together here in Miami and talk a little bit about the issue,” Rodda said from his daughter's house that same month. “But he's not here.”

After more than six months in limbo, the fading star decided the only way to end the contract was to go back to Havana himself, despite the risk that, suspecting his intentions to reside in the United States, the Cuban government might not give him permission to leave the country. “He said he had to go back,” reports Rodriguez. “Otherwise, he said, he would have to get a job selling sandwiches or die of starvation. Every time he goes back,” she adds, “it gets more risky. But he's really got a lot of charm. He will be talking to the minister of whatever, and they'll start out saying, “Hey, isn't this the worm who said he was staying in Miami?' And the next thing you know, they're giving him whatever he wants.”

The Havana Café was in high jineteo mode on Saturday night, May 20, 2000. Outside, a long line of young women and a few young men snaked along a wall that displayed a poster of Manolín. Decked out in silk shirts and spaghetti strap dresses, each young person hoped a tourist might happen by, willing to pay the $25 cover and treat them to a night out or more. Everywhere inside in the packed club, beautiful young Cuban women were grinding their backsides to the delight of European and North American businessmen with deep pockets.

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