Cuba: The New Normal

Even things that seem necessary, logical and overdue can arrive unexpectedly.

As with President Obama’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century.
In his speech, Obama said:

…We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. And instead, we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.

Only Congress can lift the official embargo of Cuba, which the incoming Republican majority in both houses is unlikely to support. Yet, according to the president, the United States will: re-establish an embassy in Havana and high ranking officials will visit Cuba; review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; take steps to increase travel commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba; enable, among other things, the use American credit and debit cards on the island; and significantly increase the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and remove limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people and the emerging Cuban private sector.
All this arrived via considerable drama, involved secret meetings and he involvement of the Pope—as reported in The New York Times:

After winning re-election, Mr. Obama resolved to make Cuba a priority for his second term and authorized secret negotiations led by two aides, Benjamin J. Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, who conducted nine meetings with Cuban counterparts starting in June 2013, most of them in Canada, which has ties with Havana.
Pope Francis encouraged the talks with letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro and had the Vatican host a meeting in October to finalize the terms of the deal. Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to seal the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct substantive contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.

In his speech, the president said, “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” And this: “It’s time for a new approach.” He lent context to his decision with these words:

Change is hard in our own lives and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders. But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past.

Already, church bells in Havana are ringing in celebration. My in-box is stuffed with excited messages from my colleagues, including a good many musicians, about something “we’ve waited a long time to hear.” Furious statements have been fired off by the anti-Castro contingent, including Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (who posted this piece at Huffington Post).
Beyond the effects this sea change will have to relieve needless suffering on the part of innocent Cuban people and lend further maturity, ethical standing and productive thinking to U.S. foreign relations, there will no doubt be a dramatic shift in the context of the culture that has always flowed from the island of Cuba and its essential connections to that of the U.S. As the tone and direction of U.S. policy transforms, the sound of the music that has always bounced between two countries will reverberate more freely and, quite likely, change.
As I recently wrote: “Want to hear the hippest jazz in New York? Follow a Cuban musician. The most exciting storyline right now in New York City jazz and the most invigorating music most often comes from players with Afro Latin roots. That fact, and the specifics of these musical projects, says much about a broadened landscape for what used to be called (but thankfully no longer can) Latin jazz, its elemental value to whatever we call jazz, and to the cultural melting pot that is New York.
In decades of reporting on that cultural beat in New York City, and via four trips to Cuba during the last decade or so, I’ve seen just how deeply and unnaturally the U.S. policy toward Cuba has distorted and at times curtailed this elemental connection.In a 2004 piece for The Village Voice on the subject, I noted that:

In 2004 alone, the list of Cuban musicians forced to cancel performances due to visa denials includes Buena Vista Social Club singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, jazz pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdés, singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, the seminal dance band Los Van Van, and the folkloric ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas.
The security crunch following 9/11 has given immigration authorities the excuse they’ve long sought to exclude many foreign musicians from the United States. But against Cubans, the resistance runs far deeper. This is a Cuban music crisis—a development that has more to do with the Cold War than the War on Terror.

And I gave some background:

The Cuban embargo was imposed in 1960. Barriers were lowered somewhat during the Carter administration, but the situation reversed as the Cold War played out. In 1985, President Reagan issued Proclamation 5377, under section 212F of the Immigration and Nationality Act, denying entry to “any class of aliens into the United States [that] would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” specifically those “considered to be officers or employees of the government of Cuba or the Communist Party of Cuba.” This blocked virtually all Cubans, since 90 percent of the country’s economy is state-run.
Relations with Cuba loosened throughout Clinton’s second term—Los Van Van, Cubanismo, and many other Cuban bands made their U.S. debuts. In 1999 the U.S. began exempting broad categories of Cuban applicants from Proclamation 5377, especially artists, in an effort to encourage “people-to-people exchange.” As State Department spokesman Lou Fintor explains, “At that time, the American government undertook what it termed a two-track approach to its Cuba policy: tightening some aspects of the embargo but also exposing its citizens to American freedom and democracy.”
With relaxed restrictions, Cuban music flowered anew in the United States.

But by 2004, President George W. Bush’s administration began using the denial of artist visas as a method of cutting off such exchange. I’ll never forget a New York Times Op-Ed. piece by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who was frustrated by the fact that his friend Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Valera could not perform in the U.S. “In a profound way,” wrote Browne, who toured with Varela in Europe, “our government takes on the role of oppressor when it tries to control which artists will be allowed access to our minds and hearts.”
Such policy shifts had dramatic impact. Here’s how these changes affected pianist/bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, from a 2010 cover story on his orchestra’s trip to Cuba:

The dream was simple, really. Through the support of his Alliance organization, Arturo wanted to bring the orchestra he leads in his father Chico’s name back to Cuba, which Chico left for good in 1959. He had toyed with the idea for some time, but it became a firm goal, a mission, in 2002, after his own first visit to Cuba. “I’m going to do this,” he’d told me toward the end of that trip. “And even though Chico never made it back to the island physically, his music will be played there. I feel like he’ll be there with us. The people will embrace his music. And somehow, to some degree, all will seem right with the universe to me for just a split-second.”
Within a year, such momentary righteousness was politically wrong and, in practical terms, impossible. After Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés headlined Manhattan’s Village Vanguard in December 2003, no Cuban musician wishing to return to his country performed in the U.S. until 2009; meanwhile, American musicians who would regularly travel to Cuba were denied the necessary license from the U.S. Treasury Department. The Bush administration had effectively shut down all cultural exchange. The Havana International Jazz Plaza Festival, which, a decade ago, hosted American musicians from pianist Herbie Hancock to Arturo O’Farrill himself, was off-limits.
….In a widely distributed 2007 letter, Alicia Alonso, director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, wrote, “Let us work together so that Cuban artists can take their talent to the United States—so that a song, a book, a scientific study, or a choreographic work are not considered, in an irrational way, a crime.” Soon after, on “Democracy Now!,” Arturo told host Amy Goodman, “For us to be denied access to this source of cultural sustenance is absolutely insane.”
By 2009, the U.S. had loosened those travel restrictions once again. “Almost immediately after the Obama administration took office, there were folks at the State Department willing to work with us,” said Bill Martinez, an attorney who specializes in such matters, and who handled the details of Arturo’s December trip. “It was still a minefield—there is still an embargo—but Obama was beginning to come through with his commitment to cultural exchange.”

“I think people forgot what the bridge between Cuba and the U.S. looks like,” Carlos Henriquez, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s bassist, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in the Bronx, and who was tapped by Mr. Marsalis as the project’s music director, told me. That Jazz at Lincoln Center residency was also made possible by Obama’s relaxation of restrictions; my Wall Street Journal coverage of it is here and here.)
Here’s how I ended that 2004 Voice piece:

Saxophonist Steve Coleman is one of many American jazz players who have derived deep inspiration and seminal information from Cuban collaborations. The Bush policies frustrate him. “I remember an audiotape of John Coltrane talking to several people in a room, in the early 1960s,” Coleman told me. “At one point they began talking about cigars. Coltrane mentioned that the best cigars were from Cuba. Then in a kind of regretful tone, he said something like, ‘Well, that’s all finished now,’ in reference to the recently instituted embargo. This was the initial curtailing of experiments like those of Dizzy Gillespie in the ’40s and ’50s. Who knows what could have happened if the musicians of the ’60s had had full access to this music?”
Or what’s lost today.

I dare say we’re going to begin to find out.
And here’s how I ended that 2010 piece on O’Farrill:

That final Sunday night in Havana, after the premiere of his new piece, the Mella’s massive brown curtain drew slowly shut, until finally only Arturo was visible. He was speechless. He simply waved. The curtain closed. The door had been thrown open, the larger conversation to come.

That conversation just got louder, bigger and a lot freer.
(Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

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