Cuba's Finest Banned

When the Cuban dance band Los Van Van played the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in June, festival president Dick Rosenzweig told the Los Angeles Times that the audience reaction was unlike anything he had seen in the event's nineteen-year history. A Times critic described the fervor at the stadium as "a musical variation on the storming of the Berlin Wall." Two weeks later pianist Chucho Valdes and a spectacular new incarnation of his legendary Latin jazz group Irakere showed up a tepid Tito Puente on the stage of Carnegie Hall. That same weekend New York Latins reveled in the dusty pit in front of Central Park's Summer Stage, shouting back the words to every song performed by salsero Issac Delgado. And last month NG La Banda led a conga line a thousand people strong through the lobby of Lincoln Center's venerable Avery Fisher Hall.

This summer Cuban musicians toured the United States at a rate not seen since before the revolution, returning home with proof positive that their music can draw large American audiences, something that might have seemed impossible to them a decade ago.

Logically, the MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Market, an industry trade conference scheduled to begin September 8 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, should be the ideal venue to capitalize on the recent Cuban music renaissance. Numerous companies who record or distribute Cuban music, and even some celebrated bands, made preliminary plans to attend the event.

"To me it was a no-brainer," says Jimmy Durchslag, owner of Bembe Records, a small northern California label that specializes in Cuban music. "I was really looking forward to going to Miami, introducing myself, and getting my product out there."

Officials from Dade's Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) seemed equally enthusiastic. Last year they pledged $125,000 in county grants and corporate support to MIDEM and made a deal that would ensure that the annual music fete takes place in the Miami Beach Convention Center for the next four years. (GMCVB staffers estimated that the MIDEM convention would feed $17.5 million into the local economy this year alone.)

Then something terrible happened: Dade County politics.
Specifically, GMCVB officials invoked a 1996 administrative order that forbids the county to do business with any entity that does business with Cuba, directly or through a third party. As a result, the MIDEM conference now finds itself in disarray, with several record companies opting to withdraw. MIDEM officials have expressed regret over the county's policies. Nonetheless, they have told representatives of Cuban record labels that they are not welcome at the Miami conference and that their bands cannot play.

Officials from GMCVB and the County Attorney's Office, meanwhile, are still divided over the exact meaning of the order. Mayco Villafana, GMCVB's vice president for corporate communications, maintains that banning Cuban acts and products at the conference is enough to satisfy the anti-Cuba rule. But the County Attorney's Office argues for a stricter interpretation. The order should have forbidden GMCVB and its government partners -- which include Dade County and the City of Miami Beach -- to enter into an agreement with MIDEM in the first place, since the Paris-based organization has done business with Cuba's state-run record label Egrem for years.

To legal observers the question raised by the MIDEM brouhaha is more fundamental: Is Dade County violating the U.S. Constitution?

"Our position is that this is a violation of the First Amendment and the Trading with the Enemy Act as modified by the Berman Amendment," says Dade County ACLU vice chairman John de Leon. The 1988 Berman Amendment allows for the legal import and export of informational materials like books, art, films, and music to and from Cuba. Under the amendment, U.S. record companies can license and distribute existing Cuban recordings.

"From our standpoint it's a fairly straightforward First Amendment case, in light of the Berman Amendment, which was recognition by the United States that our country would try to promote freedom of speech in totalitarian countries," de Leon explains. "Apparently Miami has decided those things aren't applicable here." De Leon says the ACLU is prepared to go to federal court to fight GMCVB's exclusion of Cuban musicians and their representatives from the MIDEM conference.

"My first response to [the MIDEM issue] is to laugh and say this [order] is not valid," says attorney Bruce Rogow, a First Amendment expert. The current controversy calls to Rogow's mind the 1991 case he won concerning the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture. In that instance a federal judge ruled that the City of Miami could not rescind the museum's lease on the grounds that works by Cuban artists from the island were being shown there. "The county is imposing foreign policy," he says. "People have a constitutional right to assemble, to speak and to share information."

GMCVB's Villafana maintains that the county is within its rights to determine who it will and will not do business with. "Laws are meant to be interpreted," he says. "This will be decided in court if it comes to that." According to the 1996 order, anyone entering into a contract with Dade County must sign a "Cuba affidavit," swearing that they do not do business with Cuba, engage in any transaction involving Cuban goods, or subcontract with any entity that does business with Cuba.

A significant percentage of the companies slated to attend the MIDEM conference violate this rule. Paris-based record label Milan Latino, for instance, has licensed the rights from Cuba's largest record company, Egrem, to release numerous Cuban recordings for compilations. Milan has also signed sonero Adalberto Alvarez and other Cuban nationals to record new material on the label. Representatives of New York-based RMM, which signed Issac Delgado through a Latin American subsidiary, are also scheduled to attend, as are people from EMI, the international distributor for Caribe Productions, which is the biggest exporter of new Cuban CDs from the island.

"They can come and they can bring [recordings by] their other artists," Villafana said when asked last week about these presumed violators. "But if they're dealing with [recordings by] Cuban artists, it certainly will be an issue with us." Given the big bucks the MIDEM confab is expected to bring to the county, Villafana's looser interpretation of the order is not surprising.

But it is wrong, according to Robert Cuevas, a lawyer in the County Attorney's Office. "The order doesn't pertain to only a particular transaction that has to do with Cuba," Cuevas says. "For example, the county could be buying tractors made in the States from a certain company, but if the company does some other business with Cuba we can't deal with them at all."

According to Cuevas and First Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg, no one from GMCVB or the county manager's office bothered to seek legal advice from them about the application of the order before negotiating with MIDEM. Though Cuevas refused to comment specifically about how the order applies to the conference, there is little question that -- by his stated standards -- MIDEM does business with representatives of the Cuban government. For three decades Egrem has paid MIDEM thousands of dollars to set up booths at its annual conferences in Cannes. Egrem also makes distribution deals for Cuban recordings at these gatherings, and Cuban bands frequently perform.

Villafana says that any discussion of withdrawal of county support for the event because of MIDEM's Cuban business relationships is "purely hypothetical."

That may not be the case for long.
Michael Spring, who oversees grants for the Tourist Development Council, says he will seek the county attorney's advice before signing off on the $24,000 grant the council is supposed to give to MIDEM. Nor is GMCVB's contract with MIDEM a done deal. According to Villafana, the final paperwork, including the Cuba affidavit that would seal the deal, remains unsigned. Villafana contends that even if the agreement were canceled, MIDEM could still come to Miami -- it would just have to make do without the promised grants or corporate support; and MIDEM could be denied use of the public facilities GMCVB has offered in agreement with its government partners, chiefly Dade County and the City of Miami Beach.

This would mean MIDEM would have to find a facility large enough to house 175 booths and several thousand music reps from some 600 companies. Not a likely prospect.

The exclusion of Cuban music and musicians has cast a pall over the event. "MIDEM should have chosen another location for the convention," says Bill Nowlin, head of the Cambridge-based Rounder Records. "While I understand that there are strong feelings among the anti-Castro community in Miami, this is an international music conference hosted by a European organization, and it is intended to be inclusive rather than to exclude. United States government policy is that there should be free exchange of recordings and publications between Cuba and the United States. So this vocal minority is not only contradicting the wishes of the attendees from around the world but also U.S. policy."

Rounder distributes Ashe Records, a New York-based label that features CDs by Cuban artists in its catalogue. Ashe president and record producer Rachel Faro has dropped her plans to share a stand with Rounder, but she says she will still attend MIDEM. "My interest now is to challenge the situation and go ahead with what I do, which is completely legal under the federal law," says Faro. She says that she has spoken with some other attendees about wearing armbands or ribbons in protest during the gathering. "What are they going to do? Arrest me in the lobby of a hotel for making a deal with an Argentine company for a Cuban master tape? The whole thing is ridiculous."

Jimmy Durchslag of Bembe has decided to cancel altogether. "I don't want to feel like I have to wear an overcoat and skulk around saying 'Pssst! Over here! Have a look at these CDs,'" he huffs.

Milan Latino has scrapped plans to have its Cuban artists perform at the event. But the company will bring Cuban CDs, even if they have to be kept under the table. "The Cuban product sells, and that's what counts," says Vanessa Suarez, director of Milan USA.

Bernard Batzen, MIDEM's artistic director, is unhappy about the situation. "We tried hard to let the Cubans in," Batzen says from his office in Paris. But given GMCVB's mandate, he canceled his plan to showcase Cuban bands in a series of live performances. In fact, he says he won't bring any Cuban bands to Dade, even if the county reverses its stance: "We would have a riot on our hands."

Nestor Proveyer, a vice president at Cuba's Egrem, will be canceling his reservations. "We were definitely planning to attend," said Proveyer in a recent phone interview from Havana. "There was no question." He and his colleagues at the label started selecting bands to perform at the gathering as long ago as last year. Proveyer says he'll still be happy to attend if Egrem is invited at the last minute. "This is such an archaic discourse," he says with a sigh. "This event is about music, not politics. Unfortunately MIDEM has allowed itself to be pressured by Dade County, and they've politicized the event."

In any case, he's confident Egrem's absence won't do much damage to the booming Cuban music industry: "There are some things that are so strong they can't be ignored. People there will be talking about Cuban music. The music will be there anyway." Proveyer insists that recent articles in Billboard and Spain's El Pais newspaper about the controversy haven't bothered him either. Just the opposite. "This is good publicity for us," he says cheerfully. "Our sales have gone up lately because of this whole thing.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >