Hurricane Van Van

Miami Mayor Joe Carollo needs to brush up on basic civics, not to mention civility. Appearing recently as a guest on Radio Mambí's (WAQI-AM 710) weeknight call-in show, Mesa Redonda, Carollo egged on host Armando Perez-Roura and callers as they hurled insults at the Cuban dance band Los Van Van. "Dogs," "bastards," "garbage," "murderers," and "torturers" were all terms used to describe the well-known group. State Department officials were deemed "the Che Guevaras in Washington." Former Cuban political prisoner Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, now an outspoken proponent of dialogue with the island, was repeatedly mocked as the kind of liberal scoundrel who would attend a concert by the ensemble. Ex-communist Arturo Sandoval phoned in just to let everyone know he had nothing to do with Los Van Van. Sounding as excited as a horny teenager on the eve of his first school dance, Carollo invited the trumpeter to perform at an event organized by Bay of Pigs veterans that subsequently replaced an announced concert by Los Van Van at the James L. Knight Center on October 9.

Even when one caller warned that the Knight Center "was going to blow sky-high" if Los Van Van appeared, Carollo did nothing to temper the hate mongering. He merely joined the show's host in thanking the listener for calling. Carollo told the audience he decided to oppose the performance when he found out the Cubans were scheduled to perform at a City of Miami facility. He considered it an outrage.

The show was just one skirmish in Debbie Ohanian's Los Van Van war. A few days later, as city offices started closing in anticipation of Hurricane Floyd, Ohanian was hard at work in her home office. She had already been hit by a storm of controversy over her plan to present the Cuban group. The first date she proposed, October 9, collapsed when theater management caved in to pressure from Carollo and several Miami commissioners. This past week, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) became involved, the sides agreed to reschedule the event for October 11.

A gregarious hostess and shrewd businesswoman, Ohanian is the owner of Starfish. Best known for offering weekly salsa lessons that attract some of the area's most agile rueda dancers, the South Beach club has gained prominence as a venue for a half-dozen recent concerts by bands from Cuba. Ohanian, a clothing designer, is the kind of effortlessly glamorous woman who looks comfortable in high heels. This morning she is casually dressed, as if for fashionable combat, in khaki-color cargo pants and a black T-shirt.

Ohanian has experience with cultural conflict. As a girl she demonstrated with other Armenians who gathered annually at the United Nations to commemorate the anniversary of their people's 1915 genocide at the hands of Turks. Her group wanted the Turkish government censured for its role in the massacre.

Pacing the floors of her vast apartment above the club (a Mediterranean-style building on West Avenue that once housed the venerable Italian restaurant and Mafia hangout, Gotti's), she holds a portable telephone to her ear with one hand and carries a cellular in the other. Both phones have been ringing all morning.

Ohanian takes a call from a Sun-Sentinel reporter, then dials an ABC News producer in New York. "We have a really wild situation going on here and we need some national exposure," she says, explaining that officials and the Cuban exile community have mobilized against the concert. "These people are trying to censor what's going on in Miami as if it's not part of the United States. We think if we could get some national coverage on this these people they may start to bend a little."

A computer printer spews sheets of paper with the e-mail addresses and phone and fax numbers of Carollo and city commissioners. Ohanian has decided to run ads in local media, urging music fans to protest the concert ban by writing to the officials.

The promoter turns on the speakerphone and calls several local record-store owners to request that they add their businesses' names to the ad. Only Carlos Suarez, manager of Esperanto Music, agrees. One Little Havana proprietor even lies, falsely contending her store does not carry Los Van Van CDs.

"I'm not against the concert but I don't want to get involved," stammers a Hialeah store manager. "I don't want anything to come out with my phone number that says I'm either against it or for it. I've got a lot of customers; I've been in business a long time. Music isn't political but you've got commissioners and the mayor involved, so this is political." The manager adds that he has received many calls from hopeful ticket buyers inquiring about the status of the concert. He cheerily reports that the band's new album, Llego Van Van (Van Van Is Here), has been selling well.

"What [those opposed to the concert] don't realize is that Los Van Van are selling more records than ever," Ohanian says. "People who didn't even know what a Van Van was are running to the store to buy the CD. Even people who aren't interested in Latin music, let alone Cuban music."

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 Herald and 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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