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Date: Sun, 24 Jun 2001 02:52:48 -0500 (CDT)
From: =?iso-8859-1?Q?Haiti_Progr=E8s?= <editor@haiti-progres.com>
Subject: This Week in Haiti 19:14 6/20/2001
Article: 121462
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Grupo Vocal Desandann breaks Maimi's cultural blockade

By Kim Ives, Haiti Progres, (q)This Week in Haiti,
Vol. 19 no. 14, 20-26 June 2001

The beloved Cuban-Haitian vocal group Desandann finally toured Miami earlier this month, thanks to the efforts of a feisty coalition of arts activists who took Miami officials to court and overturned a regulation effectively banning Cuban groups.

Since the early days of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Miami has been the seat of Cuban counter-revolution. The gusanos (worms), as the counter-revolutionaries are called in Cuba, have waged a terror campaign against many Cuban artists who have performed, or attempted to perform, in Miami. For example, in 1996, intimidating mobs attacked concert-goers entering a recital by renowned Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. A few months earlier, musician Chucho Valdez had to cancel a concert due to bomb threats. In 1998, terrorists fire-bombed a club where Manolin Medico de la Salsa was scheduled to play. Last fall, 5000 gusanos rioted, throwing rocks and bottles, when the Cuban musical group Los Vanvan performed.

So frenzied were the Cuban counter-revolutionaries that in 1996 they had Miami-Dade County enact an ordinance to deny county funding to any organization doing business with Cubans, with Cuban businesses, or even with people doing business with Cubans or Cuban businesses.

So when Beth Boone wanted to bring Desandann from Camaguey, Cuba to Miami, she had a problem. The Miami Light Project, the non- profit cultural organization of which she is executive director, receives about 10% of its annual budget from Miami-Dade, today amounting to $80,000. To receive the support, the Light Project, like any other fund-seeker in the county, had to swear in writing that it would respect the ordinance against doing business with Cuba.

I wanted to bring Desandann to Miami when it was making its first U.S. tour in 1997, but we had to explore if we would be penalized by the county, Boone explained. We found ourselves in a situation where the county was forcing us to sign an affidavit in order to receive our grant money, and yet it was in conflict with our constitution and with Federal foreign policy.

It was comparable to a McCarthyite loyalty oath, Boone said, which was in conflict with the Miami Light Project's constitution because as the artistic director of this organization, nobody gets to tell me what I can program. And in conflict with U.S. Federal foreign policy because, even though Washington has maintained an embargo against Cuba for the past 40 years, exchanges of art, culture, education, and religion are exempt.

Boone says the moment of truth came in 1999 when a local film festival had a $50,000 grant revoked because they showed a film made in Cuba, and a critical one at that. That put them in conflict with the affidavit, Boone said. The arts community kind of freaked out.

But the county only tightened its controls, faxing out to groups a notice that they would be ineligible for funding unless they signed the affidavit first.

So I said forget it, Boone explained. They were strong-arming us. We took it to the board, and it unanimously decided to sue the county in federal court.

The Light Project got together with two other groups, Gable Stage and Teatro La Ma Teadora, as well as two commercial music promoters who wanted to use county facilities, Debbie O'Haniann and Hugo Cancio. They consulted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had also been itching to take a crack at the ordinance.

They challenged it on several grounds. 1) That local governments cannot conduct foreign policy 2) That the ordinance was redundant given the Federal embargo already in place on Cuba 3) That the Federal embargo excludes cultural exchanges and most importantly 4) it infringed on the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression.

The suit was filed in Federal court in April 2000, but only two months later was settled when a Federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that a Boston ordinance, which barred dealings with Myanmar (formerly Burma), was unconstitutional since local governments cannot determine foreign policy. The judge in the Miami case prudently concurred.

The court victory rendered the county's ordinance unenforceable, and Boone immediately set about planning Desandann's Miami tour.

The result was a series of magnificent concerts. When the group of five-male, five-female vocalists arrived at the Miami International Airport on June 6, they held an impromptu concert in the terminal, crooning songs in Creole, Spanish, and English. Over the next five days, the singers, all Cubans of Haitian ancestry, performed for Miami's Haitian community at Libreri Mapou, the Notre Dame d'Hati Church, and on the airwaves of WLQY and WLRN. They also played for a mostly Cuban crowd at a congregational church in Coral Gables. Mixed audiences also hailed the singers at the DASH High School in the Miami Design District and the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. The grand finale was in the giant auditorium at Barry University, located in the heart of Little Haiti. Over 1000 people - Haitians, Cubans, and North Americans - filled the hall to cheer the chorale as it rendered traditional folk songs like Dodo Pitit Mwen, political anthems like Hati Libr, and more recent compositions from groups like Boukan Ginen and RAM.

Backed by drums and often wading into the audience, the singers also performed Cuban songs, as well as an old-time spiritual and a song by Nat King Cole in English.

Cuba is a great mosaic of people, Emilia Diaz Chavez, Desandann's director explained to the audience. Haitian, Chinese, Arab, and many other heritages contribute to make Cuban culture and music as rich as it is.

Most of the group's members are consummate professionals who have studied music theory and singing. This expertise was apparent in their precise, complex harmonies and skillful melding of different rhythms such as meringue and rasin. Their dancing was as accomplished as their singing, and often marked by joyous improvisation.

In the end, Miami-Dade County felt compelled to present the group with an honorary key while the city of Miami awarded them a silver plate.(However, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo said that the plate had been presented to Desandann as a Haitian group, the Miami Herald reported).

But the awards of Miami officialdom paled next to the warm accolades the group received from audiences everywhere it went. They even drew sustained applause from the harried travelers at Miami International when they held another impromptu concert at the airport on their way back to Cuba.

It was ridiculous that a group like Desandann couldn't come to Miami, the U.S. city where Haitian and Cuban culture are the most relevant, Boone said. They were a little apprehensive when they arrived, but what an outpouring of love and warmth they have received.