Sunday, November 7, 2010

Vamos a Cuba? El arte de la espera...

For those (like me) who have been frustrated by the Obama administration's lack of "audacity" in changing Cuba policy, it is good to remember what HAS changed.

Cuban-Americans can now travel and send money to their relatives back home at will (a very positive change in humanitarian terms) and visas for Cuban artists and academics have been regularly granted (good for the free flow of culture, information, and ideas).

In fact, tonight I'm having dinner here in NYC with an old friend I got to know in Havana in the late 90s, the Cuban artist Sandra Ramos. She's currently on an art and lecture tour in the U.S. and gave a well-attended talk on contemporary Cuban art at CUNY's Bildner Center on Friday.

Y cuando todos se han ido, llega la soledad. Calcografía. 60x50cm

(I'd summarize the attitude of most of the art/artists she featured as a sharp mix of "burla," "critico," y "cinico" vis-a-vis current Cuban reality.  One person in the audience even surprised her by asking if there weren't any "revolutionary" artists working in Cuba today!)

This past year here in New York we've benefitted from an embarrassment of riches in terms of visiting artists and intellectuals. I've seen La Charanga Habanera, Carlos Varela, Pupi, and even "la voz da la nostalgia izquierdista" Silvio Rodriguez. I also caught a lecture here by leading reform-minded Cuban economists Omar Everleny Perez Villanueva and Armando Nova back in the spring.

My friend and guru on all things musical, Ned "post-mambista" Sublette, also reminds me of the following multiple goings on here in NYC and of others in La Habana:

Jazz at Lincoln Center had by all accounts a brilliant trip to Cuba.

The New York Philharmonic has received permission to go to Cuba.

The American Ballet Theater is there now.

Arturo O'Farrill will take the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra to
the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival in December.

The Texas Christian University Jazz Ensemble from Fort Worth will also play at that Festival, becoming the first college jazz group to play in Cuba in recent memory.

Los Van Van is coming to the U.S., with dates announced in various cities, including SOB's on Dec. 6-7 (advance tickets $55).

* * *

However, Ned suggests that we enjoy all this while it lasts, pointing to the following article by another friend, Dawn Gable, at Havana Times.

The pull quote: "Breathing room has just crucially contracted. The House race in Florida's 25th District won by David Rivera, a hardliner who thinks that even Cuban-Americans should not be allowed to travel to Cuba to visit their family."

Cuba Travel Setback with US Vote
November 3, 2010, By Dawn Gable

HAVANA TIMES — The United States midterm elections are currently being interpreted in innumerable ways by journalists around the world. While the overall implications of the results and the portent for the 2012 presidential race can be little more than conjecture at this point, the effects on efforts to restore the right of US citizens to travel to Cuba are fairly cut and dry.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will now head the House Committee on Foreign Affairs effectively preventing any legislation that would remotely improve US-Cuba relations from ever making it out of her committee. Current chairman Berman's fear of this eventuality, coupled with a maximum-allowed campaign contribution from an anti-travel PAC, caused him to exert his jurisdiction over this year's travel bill, lull his fellow Democrats into thinking he would call it up for a vote, and ultimately stall out the clock.

The big Republican gains in the Senate do not necessarily change the dynamic of that chamber. Before the midterm elections, the pro-Cuba travel camp was not filibuster-proof. That is, there were not 60 votes to override a filibuster by Senator Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat of Cuban decent.

Although Senator Dorgan boasted to have the votes needed to lift the travel ban, he took no steps to prove his claim making them doubtful. While it is theoretically easier to overcome a one-man filibuster through wheeling and dealing than it is to persuade a handful of opponents, when the loner holding up the show is motivated by personal vendetta and ideology, like Menendez, that theory breaks down. So, the Senate was an obstacle before elections and will remain so.

Executive authority is what's left
Therefore, with the Congress solidly stacked against any reform in US-Cuba policy, the only hope for change left is President Obama. But, the argument for Obama using executive authority to update Cuba policy was based on his winning Florida in 2008, which suggested that he need not worry so much about the Cuban-American vote in 2012. That thesis was strengthened by several polls in South Florida showing that most Cuban-Americans favor open travel for all Americans and better relations with Cuba in general.

But that breathing room has just crucially contracted. The House race in Florida's 25th District won by David Rivera, a hardliner who thinks that even Cuban-Americans should not be allowed to travel to Cuba to visit their family, over Joe Garcia, once director of the extreme anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation but now representing the more rational side of the émigré community that is open to exploring rapprochement, deprived Obama of political cover for such policies and cast shadows on the 2012 election.

Granted, the Florida race was not decided solely based on the candidates' Cuba stance. The general backlash occurring against Democrats, of course, had an effect on the race in a long-time republican district. In reality, the fact that Garcia had a chance at all was probably due to his more reasonable tenor on Cuba. But, it remains to be seen if the administration will bother to tease out the details and continue forward toward healing relations with Cuba or if Obama, joined by the 200+ pro-travel Congress Members, will shrug their shoulders saying "we tried" and allow the hard-line Cuban Americans in Congress to frame this defeat within their Cold War narrative, thereby halting all progress.

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