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Cuban Cultural Festival Comes To New York

For almost a decade, legendary Cuban music groups like Los Munequitos de Matanzas and Septeto Nacional were refused visas to perform in the United States. But that’s about to change.

On Wednesday, a coalition of New York arts organizations including BAM and the Joyce Theater announced the “Si Cuba!” Festival, a joint production that will bring artists, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers from Cuba to perform and share their work at venues citywide. The festival kicks off at the end of March.

Just a few years earlier, such a festival would not have been possible. During the Bush administration, Cuban artists were not allowed to perform in the States. But when Obama took office, artists' visas began to be issued again, drawing praise from Cuban music fans and ire from some anti-Castro groups.

Cuban and American cultures have long been deeply intertwined, especially during the pre-revolutionary days when Cuban music styles like rumba and mambo were wildly popular in the U.S., and Americans flocked to Havana’s casinos. Although trade with Cuba has been bared by Treasury embargo since 1960, federal policy on granting artist visas to Cubans has shifted over the years.

Cuban artists came to perform fairly frequently until Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation in 1985 asserting that all Cuban artists were employees of the Cuban government and therefore ineligible for entry to the U.S. Those restrictions were relaxed during the Clinton years, when so called “people-to-people” licenses allowed limited travel between the countries to encourage cultural exchange. After September 11, President Bush shifted policy back to the Reagan proclamation.

Since 2009, those visas have begun to be issued again, but there are still limitations.“The process is still complicated by Cuba's designation as a ‘State Sponsor of Terror’," says lawyer Bill Martinez, who specializes in Cuban artist visas. “Cuban artists are still required to wait for an unpredictably long time for their enhanced security clearances from the State department. The average is eight weeks.”

Earlier this year, the Creole Choir of Cuba didn’t receive their visas in time to perform at GlobalFest, a major world music festival in New York. But organizers of “Si Cuba!” are confident that visas for the festival's artists will be issued by the time the festival starts. “We won’t really know that until it actually happens,” says BAM president Karen Hopkins. “But it feels better…The level of professionalism of the companies, the easing of travel restrictions, the fact that it’s a festival, we believe that all of that inures to the favorable review of these visas.”

Those groups include musical legends like the nearly century-old son ensemble Septeto Nacional, as well as dance groups like the National Cuban Ballet and Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, who will be making their U.S. debuts. Other events include a performance by rapper and poet Telmary Diaz and the Havana Film Festival New York, showcasing contemporary Cuban cinema.

The idea for the festival began when Hopkins noticed that several New York City cultural institutions were programming Cuban events in the same time period. They decided to band together and promote their events as a single festival.

It’s a long way from 2005, when members of the Buena Vista Social Club were denied entry to the U.S. even to take home their Grammy awards. Hopkins says it's about time. “Cuba is a completely magical place, it's five minutes from our shores and yet it’s completely cut off. It has an incredible cultural history,” she says.

“Si Cuba!” runs from the end of March through June.