There are two things wrong with Latin music these days: Michael Greene and Fidel Castro," declares Liz Mendez, a Mexican-American pianist who has worked the local salsa scene for the last 15 years. She sits in a Montrose restaurant nursing a lukewarm coffee and mulling over the continued conflict between Cuban-Americans and Castro-backed musicians.
While these two men might not be the only things wrong with Latin music, the general consensus among both fans and artists is that Greene (president of the Grammy-awarding National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences) and Castro are major players in a controversy that's damaging the genre and its efforts to gain a larger American audience. Cuban-Americans charge that musicians based in Cuba are Castro cash cows. Artists like Celia Cruz and Arturo Sandoval have loudly pro-tested U.S. performances and CD sales by Cuban artists such as Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben González, musicians they say are being used by Castro to promote and fund his dictatorship. As much as 70 percent of the money those artists earn, they say, goes to the Castro government.
And Greene's support of Cuban artists in the States has set the stage for very visible, if barely understood, conflicts. Case in point: Greene invited Cuban artists such as Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdes to appear at the Latin Grammys last September in Miami. But in late summer, he announced that his "done deal" with city officials had come undone. Reportedly, Greene was so alarmed by potential protests by the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association and other Cuban exile groups that he decided to move the awards show to Los Angeles. Officially, Greene said he was concerned with safety issues. But unofficial theories abound: One has it poor ticket sales sent the Latin Grammys packing. Another, more involved speculation says the show was moved to avoid the perception that it's little more than Gloria Estefan's private party, her Miami PR Machine. Some Greene watchers just chalk it up to another of his blunders (a slew of sexual harassment charges and investigations of financial impropriety have kept him in the news).
In any case, it's clear that scheduling Cuban artists as Grammy presenters in Miami and not expecting a political showdown was either incredibly insensitive or unbelievably naive.
But Greene isn't alone in his naïveté. The conflict between Cuban nationals and expatriates is generally dismissed by non-Cuban Americans as a replay of the Elián hysteria. How could Celia Cruz refuse to take the stage with Ruben González? They're both Cuban, both musicians, right?
Well, yes and no.
While the public sees groups like Ry Cooder's 1996 discovery, the Buena Vista Social Club, as some old guys playing sensational son, the Cuban exile community sees them as a propaganda tool and source of funding for the continued oppression of their captive countrymen.
For Cubans who defected to the United States, to support artists like Ferrer and González is to abet Castro. For Peter Garcia, past president of Casa Cuba, a Houston cultural organization, the music has to take a backseat to the politics. "I'm not against Ry Cooder and that whole thing," he says. "I applaud that, but the thing is that the end result invariably leads to empowering Fidel Castro and legitimizing his tyranny. These old men, I'm not against them personally. Like Ibrahim, the poor guy, at least now he gets some attention. Personally, man to man, I'm happy for him. But I'm very saddened by the media's lack of attention to the negative side of all this, ignoring where this money eventually ends up.''
Enrique Teutelo, a news reporter for Univision who left Cuba three years ago, admits that the emotion is difficult for most Americans to understand. ''You can't analyze the situation in Cuba without understanding that there is a whole range of passions built up over the last four decades," he says. "That's impossible to erase simply because you say to someone, 'Be tolerant, we're in the 21st century.' Remember that for the Cubans in Miami it's been 43 years of families torn apart, of having to leave everything and everyone behind. Family, houses, businesses. Everything. They had to leave it all behind in order to escape Castro.''
Still, Buena Vista has played to sold-out crowds here. And the Houston International Festival brought the Europe-based Cuban group Cubanismo in for a 1997 performance, over the protests of Garcia and other Cuban-Americans including recent mayoral runner-up Orlando Sanchez. Though Cubanismo operates out of Paris and London, it does so with Castro's approval, and many Cuban-Americans still believe the group funnels money to his government (see "Static," by Hobart Rowland, May 8, 1997).
Elizabeth Young, spokesperson for the festival, says politics have nothing to do with their selection process, and that Garcia and Casa Cuba had little impact on the decision. "We don't select our groups based on politics," says Young. "We don't take those things into consideration.''
That feeling is echoed by Ramiro Burr, a music reporter for the San Antonio Express and author of the Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music. Burr thinks the anti-Castro Cubans have gone too far. "This is about music, this isn't about politics," he contends. "It's one thing to air an opinion, it's another to do something like interrupt an event" like the Grammy show.
But the "art isn't political" argument doesn't impress Teutelo. "In Cuba music functions as propaganda as much as it functions as art. In Cuba music is simply another mechanism to promote the regime. And it's the regime that we're against. For Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia, all those artists, the point isn't Cuba. The point is the regime.''
Liz Mendez says, "I'm not a politician, I'm a musician. I bet Ruben González says the same thing. So? That doesn't change the fact that the situation is political. Do you really think Ruben González can play music that Castro doesn't approve of? He can't. Not here, not in Cuba, not anywhere. So here's a guy playing only state-approved music, traveling only to state-approved gigs and turning over 70 percent of his earnings to the government. How is that not political?''
Still, Mendez agrees with Garcia about the artists themselves. "Nobody is mad at those musicians," she says. "All those guys, they deserve their success, they deserve our respect. They earned it, they're monster players. But we can't forget that their success means Castro's success. And that helps Castro hold down hundreds of other musicians in Cuba."
The star-crossed Latin Grammys award show scheduled for September 11 was canceled. For the moment, the criticism of Michael Greene is moot. For the moment.
"All this isn't going away," Mendez says. "At least not until Castro dies and the island opens up, but until then Cuban musicians like Ruben González will keep on touring and earning nominations. And anti-Castro musicians like Arturo Sandoval and Celia Cruz will keep on protesting. Besides, the Billboard International awards are gonna be in Miami in April. We'll probably go through all this again then," she laughs.
"I'm Mexican-American," she goes on. "I've got it easy. I can go to Mexico anytime I want to. Cubans can't do that, it's different for them. If their grandmother dies, they can't go home for the funeral. They lost everything because of Castro. People risked their lives in order to escape his regime, so how am I gonna tell Cuban expatriates, 'Hey, it's just music'?''
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