By Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald
For anyone who has followed the tumultuous politics of Cuban music in Miami over the past 15 years, Cuban singer Pablo Milanés’ concert Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena brings on a powerful sense of déjà vu.
A coalition of exile groups is planning protests and calling on politicians to stop the event, which they denounce as a propaganda vehicle for the Castro government and an affront to the Cuban-American community.
Other Cuban-American leaders are calling for tolerance, citing the democratic values of free speech and expression and emphasizing the value of cultural exchange and the desire of many exiles and others to hear music from the island.
Similar debates shadowed the concert by Colombian rock star Juanes in Havana in 2009, the presentation of the Latin Grammys at the AA Arena in 2001 and the Miami concert by Cuban group Los Van Van in 1999.
Controversy over Cuban groups performing in Miami had abated considerably in the past two years, with numerous acts performing at venues ranging from the Adrienne Arsht Center to Little Havana clubs.
Now the show by Milanés, a singer-songwriter closely associated with the Cuban government and one of the island’s most famous artists, seems to have swung the needle back towards hysteria.
“Even in a democracy, nobody has the right to offend anybody,” says Emilio Izquierdo, an organizer of the anti-Milanés campaign who also helped lead the Latin Grammys protest. “We have the power of the majority. No entity has the right or authority to offend the Cuban exiles or any ethnic group in the U.S.A.”
Many of those who plan to attend the show were “brainwashed” by growing up in Cuba, Izquierdo claims, comparing Milanés to those responsible for 9/11.
“It is the same — Pablo Milanés works for a terrorist state,” he said. “We have to protect South Florida from the terrorists. … We don’t want the concert because the promoter and the act work for a state that support terrorism.” (Cuba, along with Iran, Sudan, and Syria, has long been on a U.S. government list of countries that support terrorism.)
Such statements prompt more moderate exile leaders to throw up their hands.
“Enough is enough,” says Carlos Saladrigas, a retired businessman who co-chairs the Cuba Study Group, which supports increased contact with the island as a way to foster democratic change. “This is ridiculous. Let’s seize the high ground and move on.
“This city should build on our inherent capital, which is to be the major hub of contact with Latin America. This is the United States, for goodness sake, not Castro’s Cuba. Let it happen, let people choose and choose with their wallets. What we welcome here is what we hope to see happen in Cuba, which is that anyone can express their feelings without fear.”
And yet as familiar as the fight seems, much has, in fact, changed.
Unlike the dance band Los Van Van, which played the James L. Knight Center in January 2010, or the folkloric group Muñequitos de Matanzas, which appeared at the Arsht Center in March, Milanés, 68, has been closely associated with Cuba’s socialist government and ideals. Together with Silvio Rodriguez, he founded Nueva Trova, which blends traditional Cuban music with leftist themes. Milanés is a pillar of official Cuban culture, has served in parliament and used to perform before Fidel Castro’s speeches.