The Militant (logo) 
Vol.63/No.37       October 25, 1999 
Los Van Van concert in Miami: a victory for free speech  
MIAMI — Three thousand people flocked to the Miami Arena on October 9 in defiance of threats, jeers, and a campaign of intimidation organized by rightists in the Cuban- American community and their allies in the city government. They came to enjoy an evening of red-hot dance music direct from Havana. The Cuban dance band Los Van Van wound up their successful 28-city tour of the United States and Puerto Rico with an unprecedented concert, while a crowd of anticommunist demonstrators yelled obscenities outside.

The concert was a victory celebration for many fans of the band — and an atmosphere of defiance was palpable. "It's the music, man. You've got to put the other stuff aside," one young man told TV reporters as he mounted the steps of the Arena. "The other stuff" was a several weeks-long campaign by opponents of the Cuban revolution to stop the concert from taking place, and right-wingers yelling "prostitutes," "jineteras," and "commies" from across the street.

Some people waved, and held their tickets up as they walked past protesters.

The concert crowd was young and Cuban, and included many Blacks. "We came to dance. We have the right to our music. This is the music we grew up with," one young Cuban who did not want to be identified told Militant reporters. A Cuban concert goer who is Black told news media he came in a raft from Cuba five years ago. "Sure, I've always been anti-Castro. But what's that got to do with the music?" he commented. One fan had "Los Van Van" shaved on his head.

Michael Martinez, 17, was asked by a TV reporter why he and his two friends were wearing Che Guevara T-shirts to the concert. "Because he is a great symbol for humanity," he replied.

A sense of pride and excitement could be felt inside the arena. Dancers waved, smiled, and crowded television cameras on the dance floor, eager to be seen on TV. Local television had begun live coverage of the right-wing protest hours before the concert was scheduled to begin, in a clear effort to dissuade people from attending.

The police stage-managed the protest so that concert goers were forced to walk a gauntlet of rightist protesters who were placed on both sides of the only entrance. A few people, intimidated by this situation, turned around. The majority walked past the rightists who yelled insults and spit at them. The Miami bureau chief of the Spanish news agency EFE was knocked down after being hit on the head by a battery.

After the concert was over, people leaving the arena streamed out with victory signs and holding up their Los Van Van T-shirts. They were forced by the police to walk back passed the irate crowd of rightists who threw bottles, rocks, ice, and eggs at them. Police in riot gear stood between the barricaded protesters and the elated music lovers in a media-oriented show of protection. But they did nothing to stop the rock throwers.  

City gov't tries to stop concert

Donald Warshaw, Miami city manager and former chief of police, blamed the concert goers for the violence when he told Channel 10, "When you're in a minority and you are making obscene gestures at a crowd of protesters, it's not the smartest thing to do, and even the police can't deal with that."

The city government's efforts to stop the concert were led among others by Miami mayor Joseph Carollo, who went on local radio talk shows calling the effort to bring Los Van Van to Miami an outrageous provocation staged by the Cuban government. He labeled concert promoter Debbie Ohanian "Havana Debbie." In this campaign he was joined by city commissioners, and mayor of Miami-Dade county Alex Penelas, who issued a statement condemning the concert and praising the protesters.

Under pressure from city officials and a media campaign organized by rightist radio commentators, the original concert hall for Los Van Van was canceled. When the event was rebooked in a different location, the city aided in the organization of protests. Concert promoters were charged $31,000 for police protection. The show went forward anyway, due to the profound changes in Cuban-American community, which have weakened the right wing both in and out of the Miami city government.

At 6:00 p.m. on the night of the concert, Brigade 2506, a terrorist organization involved in the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, organized to show a film titled "Libertad" (liberty), which claimed to portray the suffering of a Cuban rafter who came to this country for "freedom." Most of those at the movie show were older and very few rafters were present. At the same time, it was clear that many rafters went to the concert.

Many people believe that one of the reasons for the opposition to Los Van Van playing here is because the musicians are Black.

To try to prove that they were not racist, some of the anticommunist protesters had signs saying "Blacks are brothers, Reds are not!" Few Blacks joined in.

The radio commentators opposed to the Los Van Van performance said that the reason they didn't want them to play is because they are ambassadors of the Cuban government. "They are not artists but terrorists," said one of the commentators on Radio Mambi. Los Van Van has been playing music in Cuba for 30 years. "Like all Cuban artists, we are members of the Ministry of Culture. But we do not come representing the Ministry of Culture. We come as artists to play our music," Juan Formell told reporters at an October 9 press conference.

Three years ago Rosita Fornés, a Cuban singer who has never publicly broken with the Cuban government, was to appear at the Centro Vasco restaurant. The establishment was firebombed. She was then scheduled to perform at the Jackie Gleason Theatre. The performance was canceled for a second time after threats.

That same year many enterprises that did business with Cuba were firebombed, including Marazul Travel Tours and Tu Familia shipping. In 1997, WRTO-FM Tropical 98.3 — the only station that played the music of Los Van Van — stopped broadcasting their songs after a month because of a bomb threat, critical editorials on other Spanish-language stations, and the withdrawal of some of its major advertisers.

In the last year or two, however, many Cuban bands and musicians have played in the Miami area, but mostly in smaller clubs in Miami Beach. This was the first time a space such as the Miami Arena was used. The music of Los Van Van is played in Miami clubs and their CDs and tapes are sold throughout the city.

Miami commissioner Thomas Regalado participated in the protest of the Los Van Van concert. "It's a one way street," he told the Miami Herald. "In Cuba you don't see our performers like Chirino and Gloria being able to play." This was answered by one concert participant who pointed out that should the Miami-based Cuban-American Gloria Estefan perform in Havana, she would immediately be prevented from performing in Miami. In one highly publicized incident in 1997, Puerto Rican salsero Andy Montañez was banned from performing here because he had been photographed hugging Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez.  

Widespread support for free speech

The turnout for the concert showed the widespread support for free speech and artistic expression in Miami, including among Cuban-Americans. It showed the rejection among many of rightist propaganda that claims widespread "violation of human rights" in Cuba, which supposedly justifies not allowing Cuban artists who don't desert their country to perform in the United States.

For days leading up to the event, work areas buzzed with a lively, sometimes heated, but civil discussion about Los Van Van's appearance in Miami and about the effort to shutdown the concert.

At one Machinists-organized plant, a number of Cuban-Americans who are known for their stance against the Cuban revolution argued that cultural exchanges were good and that people should be able to attend free from intimidation. Those who in the past have openly taunted and harassed opponents of the U.S. embargo against Cuba said nothing to a few co-workers who attended the concert.

When one worker wore her Los Van Van T-shirt co-workers wanted to see what other cities the band played in. Half a dozen asked for postcards that were given out at the concert. One worker wanted information on the band's Internet site.

Many others wanted to hear about the music and discuss the counterprotest. Some said they would like to go to Los Van Van's next concert in Miami, scheduled for December.

At an aerospace plant nearby, one older Cuban worker said he went to the protest and "all those who went [inside] were communists."

But another worker said, "The right way to protest would be to not buy tickets. But they tried to prevent other people from going. They [Los Van Van] don't just play for Cubans either. Colombians like them, other people like them. If I can, I'll go in December when they come back," he said.

Eric Simpson is a member of Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees Local 415 and Rollande Girard is a member of the International Association of Machinists Local 1126.  
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