Photo by Pedro Portal, El Nuevo Herald staff
"Music can't stop the tank. But it can touch the heart of the person driving the tank," says the Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela who clearly touched more than a few hearts in Miami this past weekend.
Jordan Levin reminds us with a poignant review in the Miami Herald of the Cuban troubadour's long-awaited return to Miami that art and music "have a power beyond what anyone can control, even the artists who make it. If the music is real and any good, you can't calculate what it means or how it might move or inspire someone. And that is worth something. To the people at the [concert] Saturday, it was worth something incalculable."
Thanks to the Obama Administration's willingness to increase cultural links between the U.S. and Cuba, Varela is on his first U.S. tour in more than a decade. He's not the only one. Silvio Rodriguez will play Carnegie Hall next month, and numerous other Cuban acts have been crisscrossing Miami, New York, LA and other spots in between.
Two years ago, the Florida legislature passed a bill offered by Cuban American state representative David Rivera that would have forced U.S. travel agencies in Florida booking travel to countries on the State Department's "terrorism list" to pay bonds as high as $250,000 (ten times the existing bonds) to stay in business. At the time, opponents accused Rivera of trying to kill Florida-based travel to Cuba, the only country on the State Department's terrorism list -- which then included Iran, Sudan, Syria and sunny North Korea -- that anyone in Florida would ever want to visit.
Now the bill's come due on Rivera's bill: it will cost Florida taxpayers $364,000 in reimbursed legal fees incurred by the small businesses he was apparently trying to drive out of business.
Back when the bill passed in 2008, sixteen travel agencies sued the state. The judge ruled in their favor, reasoning that one right states definitely do not have is to conduct their own foreign policy. So now the Florida Treasury must reimburse the travel companies hundreds of thousands in legal fees -- not to mention the money the state lost defending against the law suit in the first place.
Not surprisingly, Joe Garcia, Rivera's Democratic rival to capture the Congressional seat being vacated by fellow Cuban American Mario Diaz-Balart, jumped on this development:
"News that David Rivera's political stunt cost Florida's families hundreds of thousands of dollars in a battered economy is disturbing and another reminder of why we can't trust him with taxpayer dollars in Washington."
Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela, who is finishing up his first U.S. tour in more than a decade this month reminds us that in life, "there are those who build walls and those who build doors." New York-based Cuban songwriter Alina Brouwer apparently prefers to build walls, and recently wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton opposing certain cultural exchanges with Cuba.
Brouwer questions the "bad intentions" or perhaps ill-informed (U.S.) "bureaucrats' who haven't "considered the circumstances" when they give entry visas to famous Cuban artists, such as Alicia Alonso or Silvio Rodriguez, whom Brouwer sees as too favored by or too ideologically aligned with the Cuban government.
I can't speak to Ms. Brouwer's life in Cuba, or what led her to leave the country. (Though I am pretty sure there was only one Holocaust, which took millions of lives, and it wasn't in Cuba.) I don't have illusions that life in Cuba is easy, particularly for someone who wants to march to the beat of a different drummer a little too loudly. But whatever credibility Ms. Brouwer might have had with me she squandered when she wrote these words to explain why we should be banning certain Cuban musicians from our shores:
"Richard Wagner was a great composer. As we all know, he was Adolf Hitler's favorite . . . Although the Jewish Holocaust is today part of world history, and Wagner was not even alive when the atrocious crimes were being carried out, many Jewish people can't bear to hear his music."
After invoking the Holocaust, Brouwer channels her inner bureaucrat.
"What's the criteria being used to qualify these persons? What really constitutes a cultural exchange within the law? Where are the monies that are being used to finance all of these contracts/concerts coming from? Who's supervising all of it? Who is benefiting economically and politically from it? Under what basis can the Cuban government's cultural employees and officials receive visas and who's making these decisions?"
A couple of weeks ago, after reading a particularly misleading white paper put out by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies debunking arguments in favor of lifting the U.S. travel ban, I lamented the absence of honest debate on matters of U.S. – Cuba policy.
I’ve just read another seemingly scholarly article, posted on the pro-embargo website Capitol Hill Cubans, from a Ph.D. candidate up at New York University, that similarly disappoints, and it leads me to conclude that we’d all be well served by a regular Debunking the Debunkers effort here at The Havana Note. Too often, policy makers, the media and the general public rely on what these scholars write, when what they offer is plainly not just the facts.
As BP struggles to staunch the undersea gusher – dumping 200,000 gallons of light crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day – after the explosion of its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, in which at least 11 workers lost their lives, there’s a renewed focus on prevention and mitigation of disasters like this one. Already, coastal Louisiana is feeling the effects, and some scientists predict that the Gulf’s loop current will transport the oil slick along the Florida Panhandle, through the Florida straits and up the Atlantic seaboard as far as North Carolina.
It’s still unclear what exactly it will take to turn off the tap opened by the Deepwater Horizon. But BP - which up until this disaster, was among the most trusted names in the industry - has had at its disposal the best equipment and personnel in the world from the moment the disaster struck. What if this spill had happened in Cuban waters, where the U.S. government forbids American companies to operate, and American personnel to travel? This scenario grows more possible given a report from Havana this week that the Spanish could be drilling in Cuban deep waters – with an Italian rig built in China – as early as this fall.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry has just published a Committee report on taxpayer-funded Radio and TV Martí, two broadcast stations which, in more than 27 and 20 years' time, have won few fans outside of South Florida.
Radio and TV Martí have received negligible support from among the Cuban people and have had almost no impact on Cuban Government behavior and policy. As a result, Congress has made several attempts over the years to cut funding for the programs, especially for TV Martí. In addition to the programs’ ineffectiveness, in December 2006, press reports alleged significant problems in OCB’s operations, with claims of cronyism, patronage, and bias in its coverage, issues that attracted further attention in Congress.
There's not much to be surprised about in this report - though it offers an incredible level of detail and supporting evidence from within the stations' operations and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Kerry's office has done the homework. It's his job to assess what we're all getting for our tax dollars. What's frankly surprising is that Kerry lifted the lid on what so many consider a wasteful program but didn't go in for the kill.
Well. Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) award-winning
Business and human rights groups urged Congress on Thursday to ease the decades-old embargo on Cuba by passing a bipartisan bill to lift a ban on travel to the communist country and remove certain obstacles to legal farm sales.
"We believe the proposed legislation represents a necessary step toward ending a U.S. policy that has failed for decades to have any impact on improving human rights in Cuba," Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said at a congressional hearing.
After 10 years of traveling to Cuba and studying our policy toward the island, I’ve developed strong opinions on both. But to keep myself honest, I continually read what the “other half” thinks, and challenge myself not only to admit points of agreement, but to question my own accumulated conclusions.
Today marks 10 years since federal agents stormed the Miami home of the Cuban American relatives of a five year-old Cuban boy named Elián González.
It was in the middle of the Elián saga that I made my first trip to Cuba – which I never imagined would be the first of many.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many Cubans and Cuban Americans. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Elián saga, it is this: ideological differences can split a community, but they should never split up a family.
By Jorge Piñon and Anya Landau French