Very quietly, they reject Fidel Castro
Children of the Cuban
regime's ruling class who have emigrated
to Spain find they must keep a lid on any
dissenting views so they can continue to
visit relatives on the island.
By Guy Hedgecoe, Special
to The Miami Herald. Posted on Sat, Jun.
MADRID - They are the sons and daughters
of Cuba's ruling class, living in Spain
but keeping a low profile so that Fidel
Castro's government will let them return
home for visits.
They are known as quedaditos, which means
''those who stayed'' but implies the under-the-radar
lives they lead to avoid the whiff of dissidence
that might stick to their decision to live
outside the communist system.
''If you say something here, over there
in Cuba they'll find out and you'll never
see your family again,'' said a Cuban lawyer
in her 30s who lives in Madrid. 'For example,
if you put in the newspaper my name and
quote me saying, 'Cuba is a load of crap,'
if that's published, they'll say: 'You said
what? You're never going back to Cuba again.'
So the quedaditos try to live quiet lives
and remain largely unknown outside the close-knit
group of Cubans in their same situation.
Some are critical of Cuban leader Fidel
Castro. Others just want to get away from
the island's intense politics. Others want
to do business, without Cuba's draconian
controls. But for all, unlike Miami, living
in Spain does not immediately point to dissidence
and the end of their possibility of frequently
visiting the island.
There's Agustín Valdés, the
son of the former Cuban interior minister
and notorious hard-liner Ramiro Valdés,
who has lived in Madrid for the past eight
years, forging a career as a painter.
Javier Leal, the son of Eusebio Leal Spengler,
who heads the Historian's Office of the
City of Havana, runs a travel agency and
an art gallery in Barcelona.
Emma Alvarez-Tabío, the daughter
of Pedro Alvarez-Tabío, who heads
Cuba's Office of Historic Affairs, is married
to a Spanish diplomat and works here as
a consultant on investments in Cuba.
Enrique Alvarez Cambra, the son of Rodrigo
Alvarez Cambra, a physician who is a trusted
member of Castro's inner circle and performed
surgery on former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Enrique runs a medical clinic in the northern
city of Santander.
And Antonio Enrique Luzón, son of
the former Cuban minister of transport of
the same name, is based in Madrid and runs
an import-export business.
An El Nuevo Herald story in 2002 also reported
the presence in Spain of three grandchildren
and a divorced daughter-in-law of Fidel
Castro himself, two grandsons of his older
brother Ramón and one son of revolutionary
hero Juan Almeida.
Cubans have been flocking to Spain for
decades in order to start new lives. Some
arrived as exiles from Castro's system,
some married Spaniards, and some obtained
Spanish passports based on their parents'
Spanish citizenship. But after the collapse
of the Soviet Union and its massive subsidies
to Cuba, this new kind of migrant began
to arrive, a privileged group often connected
to the very highest circles of the Castro
Among persons they do not know or trust,
they may defend Castro's government or remain
quiet, according to fellow Cubans in Spain.
But among friends, they reveal varying levels
''I don't think anyone over here is in
favor of the regime,'' said the Cuban lawyer,
who asked for anonymity to avoid being identified
and perhaps punished by the Cuban authorities.
But, she added, "a lot of us don't
get caught up in political issues because
of our families.''
After the Berlin Wall came down and Cuba's
economy all but collapsed, the government
there loosened its emigration policy, seeing
the cash remittances that its citizens abroad
could send back to relatives as a crucial
source of income.
''The regime has been more flexible in
this area since the economy ran into problems,''
said Carlos Cabrera, a former Havana journalist
who moved here in 1991. 'What's more, they
wanted to depoliticize the migration phenomenon,
so they're happy to call it 'economic migration.'
But many of the quedaditos could hardly
be classed as economic migrants. Many are
professionals, the offspring of pro-Castro
parents for whom the revolution has provided
relatively comfortable lives.
That's because all Cubans living abroad
who want to visit their homeland must first
obtain a Cuban government Permit for Residence
Abroad, a hard-to-get license that allows
the possibility of returning often on vacation.
''You request the permit, and they either
give it to you or they don't,'' said Julián
Mateos, a Spanish lawyer who represents
Cubans in Spain and Spanish firms in Cuba.
According to Mateos, up to 200,000 Cubans
live in Spain, about 60,000 of whom have
obtained Spanish nationality. The Spanish
government and the Cuban Embassy in Madrid
would not give figures or comment for this
Waldo Díaz-Balart, who left Cuba
in 1959 and never returned, agrees that
the situation is extremely delicate for
the quedaditos. Having lived here for years,
he knows Madrid's Cuban exile community
well and has firsthand knowledge of Castro,
who was once married to his sister Mirta.
Nephews Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart
represent South Florida in Congress.
''It's tremendously difficult for these
people,'' he said. "It's very tricky,
this whole issue of going back and forth,
because the regime's control stretches beyond
its own borders.''
But other exiles criticize what they call
"the velvet exiles.''
''From a political point of view, I think
it's obscene,'' said Orlando Fondevila,
who fled Cuba in 1997 and works at the Madrid-based
quarterly magazine Revista Hispano Cubana.
'They live over here, which supposedly is
the 'evil' side, the capitalist side, and
at the same time they [publicly] defend
Cuba. It's obscene. If they really think
Cuba's a paradise, then they should live
Still others say the quedaditos are making
a political statement simply by living outside
''The very fact that they are here reflects
a certain distance from the regime,'' said
Pío Serrano, an exiled Cuban writer
who runs a publishing house in Madrid.
''Some people might well say that you have
to be utterly against Castro and nothing
else will do, but you can't say that everyone
is in the same situation,'' Serrano said,
noting that some quedaditos privately reveal
their dislike of the Castro regime.
Communism will remain after Castro,
Raul Castro, the designated
successor to Fidel Castro, said Cuba will
still be a communist country after his brother
By Vanessa Arrington, Associated
Press. Posted on Fri, Jun. 16, 2006.
HAVANA - Fidel Castro's brother said the
Communist Party will remain in control of
Cuba if there is a leadership change, according
to comments published in state-run media
Raul Castro, defense minister and designated
successor of his 79-year-old brother, dismissed
claims that Cuba's political system would
change dramatically after his brother is
no longer president, saying the party would
quickly fill any political vacuum.
''Only the Communist Party -- as the institution
that brings together the revolutionary vanguard
and will always guarantee the unity of Cubans
-- can be the worthy heir of the trust deposited
by the people in their leader,'' he said
in a speech Wednesday marking a military
anniversary. "Anything more is pure
As first vice president of the Council
of State, Cuba's supreme governing body,
Raul Castro, 74, is legally designated to
assume his brother's role as president of
the council in the event of "absence,
illness or death.''
Raul Castro appears to have the loyalty
of the nation's top generals, giving him
control over as many as 50,000 active troops
and firepower that includes Soviet-era tanks
and MiG fighter planes.
In his speech, he said Cuba's emphasis
on building a strong military has been justified
by the constant threat posed by the United
States ever since Fidel Castro embraced
''We Cubans are conscious of the fact that
without the effort sustained by our people
to consolidate the defensive capacity of
the country, we would have ceased to exist
as an independent nation a long time ago,''
He said the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq proved
how far the United States will go with its
"imperialist aims of planetary hegemony.''
With that war, he said, ''It became obvious
that the hawks of the empire were considering
the possibility of settling scores with
those who represented an obstacle to their
dreams of world domination.'' Cuba, he added,
is surely near the top of their ''target''
Cuba's Alarcón blames U.S. for
The speaker of Cuba's
National Assembly answered questions at
a Hispanic journalists conference via satellite
By Oscar Corral, ocorral@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Thu, Jun. 15, 2006.
It promised to be a face-off to ignite
journalistic fireworks: prominent New York
Times journalist Mirta Ojito grilling Ricardo
Alarcón, the speaker of Cuba's National
Assembly, at the Hispanic journalists convention
in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday.
But while Ojito did ask questions that
at times left the usually loquacious Alarcón
fumbling for words and made him squirm,
he said almost nothing that has not already
been heard before from Cuban government
Even when asked why Cuba has more journalists
in prison than any other country in the
hemisphere, Alarcón managed to blame
the United States. He went on to assert
that civil rights are not abused in Cuba,
Cuba's socialist system trumps U.S. capitalism,
and Cuba's black population is well represented
in the upper echelons of Cuba's government.
Alarcón gave his most passionate
response when asked what role Cuban exiles
will play in a post-Castro Cuba. He first
said he looks forward to hostility ending
between Washington and the Cuban government,
so that Cubans can reunite. But he delivered
a warning to exiles seeking to influence
the Cuban government.
''There are some people who are still thinking
in coming back to Cuba to recover their
island, to recover their land, to recover
their houses, to recover their properties,
to govern us as representative of the U.S.
government,'' Alarcón said. "For
that kind of people, I assure you, I swear
to you, they will never have absolutely
any role in this country again.''
Alarcón spoke to the National Association
of Hispanic Journalists via satellite from
CNN's Havana bureau. Wearing a dark suit,
he sat with Havana's skyline and shore as
a backdrop. He spoke in accented English,
but with enough eloquence to get his point
across without resorting to Spanish.
Ojito delivered tough questions from the
moment she finished her brief greeting to
the moment the satellite connection was
cut an hour later. She began by asking Alarcón
about the lack of press freedom in Cuba.
''Why do you continue to suppress freedom
of the press in Cuba?'' she said.
Alarcón called the reports Ojito
was citing ''inaccurate'' and went on to
blame the U.S. government for trying to
promote anti-revolutionary ''propaganda''
''I think it is important to separate fact
from fiction,'' he said. "Cuba has
been for a long time, for 47 years, subject
to a hostile campaign by the U.S. government
that has always included propaganda.''
He then flashed a document, which he claimed
was a declassified CIA report that he said
proved the agency had spent money every
year since the 1959 revolution to pay journalists
in Cuba. ''The point is very simple,'' he
said. "Cuba has a right to protect
Ojito listed several imprisoned journalists
in Cuba, and asked "What was their
''They were working for the U.S. government,''
At one point, Alarcón seemed taken
aback after Ojito asked who would be Cuba's
enemy if the U.S. embargo suddenly were
lifted, and whether he would allow debate
''Cuba, of course, would make its own decisions,''
When speaking of black representation in
Cuba's government, which has been labeled
by some human-rights groups as an apartheid-style
regime that gives Cuba's black population
no real positions of power, Alarcón
said, ''you have people that are blacker
than my suit'' in positions of power in
''Cuba is a civilized nation, it has a
constitution, it has laws, please do not
believe those propaganda ideas that we are
backward,'' Alarcón told the hundreds
of journalists gathered at the Broward Center
for the Performing Arts. Ojito, a former
Miami Herald reporter who went on to write
for The New York Times, now teaches a journalism
class at Columbia University in New York.
Last year, she published a book, Finding
Mañana, a critically acclaimed nonfiction
account of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.
Ojito, who was born in Cuba, came to the
United States on the boatlift.
Representatives of several anti-Castro
exile groups gathered outside the performing
arts center in a show of solidarity with
jailed journalists on the island. They held
poster boards that highlighted the lack
of press freedom in Cuba, with phrases such
as ''second largest number of jailed journalists
in the world'' and with photographs of Cuban
independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas,
who is in critical condition after being
on a hunger strike for several months to
demand free access to the Internet.
Manuel Vasquez Portal, an independent journalist
who went into exile after being released
from prison in 2004, was outside the venue
wearing a Fariñas T-shirt.
''I'm free for one reason: because the
groups outside didn't forget about me and
fought for the government to free me,''
Vasquez Portal said. "Now it's my turn
to plead for my colleagues on the island.''
Bill easing Cuba sales rule OK'd
By Pablo Bachelet, pbachelet@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Thu, Jun. 15, 2006.
WASHINGTON - The U.S. House Wednesday approved
an amendment to ease restrictions on Cuban
payments for U.S. agricultural exports,
but rejected two others that would have
ended the trade embargo or eased student
travel to the island.
A separate amendment to overturn recent
restrictions on religious travel was presented
by Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, an
opponent of the embargo, but then withdrawn,
presumably because it would have been defeated.
The sole successful amendment, passed by
a voice vote, seeks to overturn a Treasury
Department decision early last year that
further tightened restrictions on Cuban
purchases of U.S. products. Currently, Cuba
must pay for the merchandise in cash and
before the ships depart for Havana, rather
than upon arrival.
Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the decision
was ''only harmful to our farmers.'' As
a result, he added, sales of corn to Cuba
fell 21 percent since the rule went into
effect, meat product sales dropped 26 percent
and wheat sales 17 percent.
All four amendments were attached to a
larger Treasury, Housing and Transportation
spending bill. The White House reiterated
Wednesday that it would veto the bill if
it included language weakening the embargo.
The amendment to end the trade embargo,
presented by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.,
was defeated 245-181. The student exchange
initiative presented by Rep. Barbara Lee,
R-Calif., lost 236-187.
Supporters of the embargo say the votes
show Congress now firmly rejects easing
most trade and travel sanctions on Cuba.
Until 2004, many amendments seeking to overturn
family travel restrictions passed on the
floor and were taken out only after Bush
threatened to veto.
Miami-Dade Schools ban book on Cuba
A parent's challenge
to a book about Cuba resulted in the Miami-
Dade School Board voting to ban it -- along
with 23 other books in the series, even
though no one objected to them.
By Matthew I. Pinzur And
Elinor J. Brecher, mpinzur@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Thu, Jun. 15, 2006.
A controversial children's book about Cuba
-- and similar books from the same series
about other countries -- will be removed
from all Miami-Dade school libraries after
a School Board vote Wednesday that split
Hispanic and non-Hispanic members in an
incendiary political atmosphere.
Only the Cuba book, Vamos a Cuba, and its
English-language counterpart, A Visit to
Cuba, were reviewed through the district's
lengthy appeals process. Some board members
who voted for the ban admitted they had
never seen other books in the series, which
features 24 nations including Greece, Mexico
and Vietnam -- none of which had been formally
objected to by anyone.
''Basically it paints life in those 24
countries with the same brush, with the
same words,'' said board chairman Agustín
Barrera, who said he read most of the books.
As part of the 6-3 vote, the board overruled
two review committees and Superintendent
Rudy Crew, all of whom had decided to keep
the book. The decision directed Crew to
replace the series with more detailed books.
Even longtime district officials could
not remember any previous banning of a book
by the School Board. And the American Civil
Liberties Union said it was prepared to
file a lawsuit challenging the decision,
which the School Board's own attorney said
would be "costly.''
''This unfortunate decision is a throwback
to a Miami of several decades ago, when
the battle about freedom in Cuba was waged
too frequently about First Amendment rights
in Miami,'' said Howard Simon, executive
director of the ACLU of Florida.
He said the district should work to collect
more material with different viewpoints,
not remove the controversial books.
District officials were unsure how many
copies of other books in the series there
were, but schools hold 49 copies of the
MONTHS OF DEBATE
It became the target of controversy earlier
this year when the father of a Marjory Stoneman
Douglas Elementary student complained about
the book's rosy portrayal of life in Fidel
''The Cuban people have been paying a dear
price for 47 years for the reality to be
known,'' said Juan Amador Rodriguez, a former
political prisoner in Cuba who filed the
original complaint, which was denied, and
subsequent appeals. "A 32-page book
cannot silence that.''
But in his final appeal to the School Board,
the majority of members decided its inaccuracies
and omissions made it inappropriate for
its intended kindergarten-to-second-grade
''A book that misleads, confounds or confuses
has no part in the education of our students,
most especially elementary students who
are most impressionable and vulnerable,''
said board member Perla Tabares Hantman.
Opponents of the ban said it was tantamount
to censorship of politically unsavory speech
-- something specifically barred by the
U.S. Supreme Court.
''Next week we will have another complaint
about another book from another group,''
said board member Evelyn Greer. "If
this standard is applied, we will go through
every book in the system.''
Legal experts said the board's action appeared
to be unconstitutional. A 1982 Supreme Court
case ruled that school boards have wide
discretion to determine which books go on
shelves, but "that discretion may not
be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political
The high court's ruling in that New York
case, Board of Education v. Pico, cited
an example of an inappropriate book-banning
-- "if an all-white school board, motivated
by racial animus, decided to remove all
books authored by blacks or advocating racial
equality and integration.''
Courts typically give school boards more
discretion in choosing instructional materials
-- and Simon, the ACLU director, said he
could envision ''a perfectly reasonable
judgment being made'' to remove a book that
was not considered age-appropriate.
However, he said, "the court was adamant
that books couldn't be removed because of
Amador Rodriguez's appeal was originally
limited to the Cuba book at Marjory Stoneman
Douglas Elementary, but board member Ana
Rivas Logan amended the bill to cover the
entire series and the entire district.
''We are rejecting the professional recommendation
of our staff based on political imperatives
that have been pressed upon members of this
board,'' said Greer, who joined Solomon
Stinson and Martin Karp in voting against
The board's action does not affect the
dozens of copies of the Cuba book found
in Broward schools or public libraries in
Board member Frank Bolaños tried
to persuade the board to remove another
controversial book, Cuban Kids, which portrays
life in post-revolutionary Cuba as a veritable
paradise. But that effort was defeated in
a 6-3 vote, with the majority unwilling
to act unless a parent files a formal complaint.
Activists at the meeting promised to begin
that process today at one of the handful
of schools that has Cuban Kids.
The board did approve a bill directing
Crew to reevaluate the procedures school
libraries use to buy books in the first
place. The existing rules, which require
books to meet 15 criteria, are almost entirely
ignored because librarians do not have the
time to screen every book they buy. Their
purchases are usually based on short reviews
in professional journals.
''This book should never have been allowed
to be inserted in our public school libraries,''
said Bolaños, the book's most outspoken
critic on the board. "That is crystal
The emotional and political storm surrounding
the debate became impossible to ignore in
a community so deeply steeped in Cuban culture.
It bared the exile community's considerable
political heft as well as persistent suspicion
that other groups remain ignorant of --
or even hostile to -- the deep sensitivity
toward Cuba's image and struggles.
At a news conference earlier this month,
Bolaños exemplified that tension
when he described the decision his colleagues
faced with Wednesday's vote, saying, "They
will have a choice to either define themselves
on the side of truth and with the Cuban
community or on the side of lies and against
the Cuban community.''
Of the six board members who voted to remove
the book, three are facing reelection this
fall -- Hantman, Barrera and Marta Pérez
-- and Bolaños said he will resign
from the board to run for state Senate.
Board member Robert Ingram voted for the
ban, but only to invite the ACLU's lawsuit
so the issue could be resolved by the courts,
he said. In an impassioned speech, he said
threats from the exile community left him
thinking board members ''might find a bomb
under their automobiles'' if they voted
to keep the book.
''There's a passion of hate,'' Ingram said.
"I can't vote my conscience without
feeling threatened -- that should never
happen in this community any more.''
Pérez promptly called those comments
''inappropriate and offensive,'' and Ingram
later explained himself further.
''That's just the nature of Miami-Dade
County,'' Ingram said. "If you were
offended, come see me, work with me.''
The board's student advisor, who does not
have a vote, said students should not be
denied access to controversial books. She
said Vamos a Cuba could be used to teach
students how to question the accuracy and
bias of information they find in books and
''We can use this book as a tool,'' said
Arielle Maffei, who graduated from MAST
Academy and plans to attend Vanderbilt University
this fall. "We should have the option
to look at that book.''
Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory
contributed to this report.
Families torn by travel ban to Cuba
come out in protest
Nearly 100 demonstrators
gathered outside Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's
office to protest a Cuba travel ban that
they think is unfair.
By Laura Morales. llmorales@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Sun, Jun. 18, 2006.
Cuban-born Maria de la Torre, 73, has a
big family on the island -- several orphans
she raised and their children. She hasn't
been able to see them in many years.
"These are like my own children and
grandchildren. I love and miss them.
''But I can't go visit them,'' said de
la Torre, a member of the Association of
Christian Women in Defense of the Cuban
She and other members of her group joined
activists from Democracy for America Miami-Dade
in a demonstration Saturday outside the
office of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
a Republican who supported restrictions
on travel and remittances to Cuba that were
enacted in 2004.
Nearly 100 sun-crisped protesters crowded
at the intersection of Sunset Drive and
Southwest 92nd Avenue, flashing signs with
slogans like ''Breaking Up the Family is
Compassionate Conservatism?'' and "Travel
Restrictions Do Not Equal Freedom.''
Passing gawkers in cars provided a running
chorus of cheers, jeers, tooting horns and
wolf whistles, while three women demonstrators
yelled in Spanish into megaphones: "Ileana!
Ileana! We're going to Havana!''
Simon Rose, press secretary for Democracy
for America Miami-Dade, said his friend
Lourdes Arteaga, who lives in Louisville,
Ky., could not visit Cuba to see her dying
father or attend his funeral.
''My wife, Niuba, who is Cuban American,
used to visit her mother twice a year,''
Rose said. "My mother-in-law isn't
well, she had a nervous breakdown. But now
her only daughter has to wait years to see
Under current restrictions, those with
immediate family on the island may visit
only once, for a maximum of two weeks, every
''They have reclassified the family,''
Rose said. "Aunts, uncles and cousins
are no longer family if they live in Cuba
and you live here. This from a so-called
family-values Republican Party.''
Ros-Lehtinen's press secretary, Alex Cruz,
relayed a statement from her.
''It is great to live in the U.S. where
we have the right to freely demonstrate,
protest and voice our opinions,'' the congresswoman
said. "I only wish the protesters would
highlight that these are rights that Castro
denies to the Cuban people.
"I hope that they would denounce this
fundamental violation of human rights.''
Rose said he wants to make it clear that
Democracy for America Miami-Dade does not
support the Castro regime.
''Chinese and Vietnamese people can visit
their families in their Communist countries,''
he said. "Why can't Cubans? They're
hurting families to gain political points
Demonstrators passed out leaflets for a
similar protest scheduled for 10:30 a.m.
July 8 in front of Hialeah City Hall, 501
Keeping the beat
By Jordan Levin. jlevin@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Sun, Jun. 18, 2006.
Descemer Bueno was born and raised in Havana
and immersed in his country's music -- accompanying
his mother, a singer, on guitar at parties,
trained in Cuba's superb music education
system. He's a man whose heart practically
beats in rumba time.
Since leaving the island in the late 1990s
and settling in Miami, he has fallen for
fusion, mixing the music of his origins
with funk, rock, hip-hop, and whatever else
strikes his ear. But he was still startled
when, at a show late last year at Little
Havana club Hoy Como Ayer, a woman shouted
at him, "Play something Cuban!''
''The audience here only wants to hear
old Cuban music,'' Bueno says. He's encountered
the same attitude on the island. "Sometimes
people [in Cuba] say I'm giving too much
space to other music. Why can't I as a musician
get influences from Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica?''
Now that Bueno lives in the United States
and travels frequently, he can get inspiration
from everywhere. He helped pioneer an influential
style of Cuban-funk fusion as one of the
founders and songwriters for New York group
Yerba Buena, continuing as a solo artist
and songwriter and producer for other musicians.
While his soul and skills have been essential
to his career, it's the innovative way he
uses them that has brought him success.
But for Bueno and other artists who have
left the Cuban musical womb, there's artistic
tension between authenticity and originality,
debate about staying true to their roots
and yet flowering in the greater musical
And since the U.S. government crackdown
on travel to and from Cuba has made it all
but impossible for artists to get visas
to come to the United States, exposure here
to current musical trends on the island
has been severely limited.
''On the island you play for Cubans,''
says Ned Sublette, a record producer and
musicologist who was one of the first to
break contemporary Cuban music stateside
in the early 1990s with his label Qbadisc.
He believes Cuban musicians and music change
once they've left their native habitat --
a pool of supremely schooled players who've
been inhaling the island's music since birth,
and a culture and an audience completely
tuned to what they do.
Once in the United States, playing with
musicians from other traditions and for
people not always familiar with their culture,
musicians change, he says.
''Here you don't play just for Cubans,
even in Miami,'' Sublette says. "The
whole point about timba in Cuba is it was
a contract with the public, and here you've
got a small public for it. We're cut off
from the source.''
With the difficulties of traveling to Cuba,
it's hard to stay in touch. Sublette, who
used to go regularly, hasn't been for three
years. ''If you're not there, you don't
know,'' he says.
Cuban artists who live outside the island
believe they carry the essence of Cuban
music inside them.
''We're more Cuban than ever -- that part
of you never goes away,'' says Boris Larramendi,
singer for Habana Abierta, a rock fusion
group based in Madrid, who left Havana a
BLEND OF GENRES
On their newest album Boomerang, out this
Tuesday, they blend Cuban styles with rock,
blues, jazz, flamenco, Arabic, and African
music, and sing about the tension of identity
and acculturation. In Como Soy Cubano (Since
I'm Cuban), they boast that ''Since I'm
Cuban I'll mix you/this funky blues with
guaguanco,'' and on Larramendi's ¿Asere,
Qué Volá?, he indicts the
hypocrisy of both President Bush and Fidel
''Being in one place or another has nothing
to do with the music you make,'' Larramendi
said from his apartment in Madrid. "You
can make rock or country in Cuba, hip-hop
in any country in the world. Our music has
Cuban roots. It's mixed with other things,
but it's in clavé, as we say. It's
His group faced different problems on the
island. Habana Abierta's musicians were
harassed for playing rock, and pressured
to be less outspoken -- or at least to be
outspoken about, say, imperialism. But it
was the sense that they had no future there
that finally drove the group out in 1996.
''We weren't so important that they were
going to take the trouble to censor us,''
says Larramendi. "The problem was that
we didn't have even a minimal possibility
of getting to do something serious. To accomplish
anything in Cuba you had to do certain things,
which we weren't willing to do.''
Longing for wider prospects also drove
Jorge Gomez to leave in 1994, as the ''special
period'' of economic crisis sent tens of
thousands of other Cubans fleeing.
He lived in Central America for six years,
before arriving in Miami in 2000, where
he launched his own group, Tiempo Libre,
to play timba, the driving, poly-rhythmic
dance music that evolved in Cuba in the
1990s and still dominates the island's clubs.
Made up of former members of leading timba
bands, Tiempo Libre has performed with stars
such as Celia Cruz and James Brown, and
just released its third album, What You've
Been Waiting For. Critics have praised their
energy and expertise: ''An able ambassador
of the fertile tradition they represent,''
wrote Jazziz Magazine.
Although he misses the intensity and camaraderie
of playing on the island, Gomez has no regrets.
''In Cuba, music is primordial -- it's
life,'' he says. "But you're disconnected
from the world, because you're there with
the party that never ends. You lose something
in Cuba that you're never going to have
"But here -- above all -- you can
make your dreams come true. Musically you
have the possibility of growing. We can
play all over the world. If you triumph
in the United States, you can triumph anywhere.''
But as any American Idol hopeful or failed
salsa band can testify, commercial success
in the United States is brutally difficult
to achieve. For every Arturo Sandoval, the
great jazz trumpeter who has become revered,
there are many more who disappear into obscurity
or a tiny Miami club circuit.
Musicians who thrived in Cuba as part of
hot bands often become just another session
player with any pop act that will hire them.
The temptation is to keep playing whatever
they succeeded with back in Cuba, often
for the same, transplanted audience.
Manolin, El Medico de la Salsa, was one
of the biggest stars on the island in the
1990s. When he defected in 2001, his charisma,
and the excitement over his arrival, seemed
to leave him poised for success here. But
the one new album he released here, in 2002,
was unsuccessful; he recently finished a
series of Friday shows at Miami Beach's
Cuban American Juan Estevez, a Latin music
business veteran who helped launch Discos
CBS, the label that would become Sony Discos,
in 1979, still remembers the first time
he heard musicians from the island he had
never visited -- and still hasn't.
It was the mid-1990s, at MIDEM, the international
music fair in France, when they were featuring
''Forget the main attraction -- the background
guys were so good, so good -- it was just
beyond me,'' Estevez says, wonder in his
Now music from the island is the biggest
part of his label Pimienta Records, from
the latest timba to the hits of Benny Moré.
They've also produced some notable Cuban
records stateside, including the Grammy
and Latin Grammy nominated Los Originales:
The Cuban Masters, and South Florida groups
Danzon By Six and Conjunto Progreso.
Although he won't go to Cuba himself because
of opposition to the Castro regime, Estevez
still wishes that there was more exchange.
''It's sad because there's such incredible
talent there,'' says Estevez. "If they
could get more internationalized, they'd
get even better. It would give them international
Would mixing in off-island influences weaken
their Cubanidad? Bueno doesn't think so.
''If it's made by a Cuban musician it's
Cuban music,'' he says.