June 20, 2006

The Miami Herald

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. 17, 2006.

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 government.

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 of discontent.

''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 report.

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 there.''

Still others say the quedaditos are making a political statement simply by living outside Cuba.

''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, brother says

Raul Castro, the designated successor to Fidel Castro, said Cuba will still be a communist country after his brother leaves office.

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 Thursday.

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 speculation.''

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 communism.

''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.

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'' list.

Cuba's Alarcón blames U.S. for jailings

The speaker of Cuba's National Assembly answered questions at a Hispanic journalists conference via satellite from Havana.

By Oscar Corral, 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 officials.

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'' in Cuba.


''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 its independence.''

Ojito listed several imprisoned journalists in Cuba, and asked "What was their crime?''

''They were working for the U.S. government,'' Alarcón said.

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 and dissent.

''Cuba, of course, would make its own decisions,'' he said.

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 Cuban institutions.

''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, 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, 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 Cuba book.


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 Castro's Cuba.

''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 audience.

''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 manner.''

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 content.''

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 removal.

The board's action does not affect the dozens of copies of the Cuba book found in Broward schools or public libraries in both counties.

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 clear.''

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 online.

''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. 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 Family.

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 her.''

Under current restrictions, those with immediate family on the island may visit only once, for a maximum of two weeks, every three years.

''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 and votes.''

Demonstrators passed out leaflets for a similar protest scheduled for 10:30 a.m. July 8 in front of Hialeah City Hall, 501 Palm Ave.

Keeping the beat

By Jordan Levin. 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 world.

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 decade ago.


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 Castro.

''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 Cuban music.''

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 here.

"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 Cafe Nostalgia.

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 Cuban music.

''Forget the main attraction -- the background guys were so good, so good -- it was just beyond me,'' Estevez says, wonder in his voice.

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 competition.''

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.


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