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World Stage Without the World 

How Homeland Security is affecting your eardrums -- and America's cultural IQ

Have you been jonesing for Cubanismo, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Los Van Van, Chucho Valdes, Ibrahim Ferrer, or Omara Portuondo? Don't bother checking your concert calendar. They won't be here. Phrases like "virtual impossibility," "near impossibility" and "Kafkaesque" come up when you ask presenters and booking agents about bringing Cuban artists into the United States these days. The reasons stem from a perverse combination of post-9/11 legislation and new enforcement patterns of long-standing immigration law by the Office of Homeland Security. The cascading effect of bureaucratic catch-22s has resulted in tour cancellations, economic losses for artists and agents, and a more intangible loss for US audiences accustomed to reliable access to the best artists in the world. National government agencies' reaction to the cultural crisis created by new security guidelines seems to be indifference at best and at worst, giving rise to suspicions of the undue influence of political lobbyists. A year ago, Cuban artists like Barbarito Torres were still booking tours here, often with the tacit expectation that some early dates would have to be postponed as the kinks in the visa process were worked out. After a month's delay last November, it took Sen. Hillary Clinton's intervention to get the laoud player's security clearance pushed through. Because of new screening procedures and enforcement rules, security clearance today for foreign artists can take a reported average of eight months or more. The catch: Musicians may apply for a visa only up to six months in advance.

Angel Romero, founder of Triangle world music label Alula Records and the web portal, has closely followed the situation of international artists trying to enter the United States.

"I think there are two separate issues. One of them is the tighter restrictions for issuing visas for foreigners in general, and then there's the Cuban issue," he says. "The general one is it now takes much longer and the immigration service [has] raised the fees. They have one expedited system, especially for musicians or artists that are coming for tours, but it's pretty expensive."

"The Cuban issue is completely different," Romero explains. "There are some elements in the State Department who have decided that they do not want Cuban musicians playing in the United States because they claim that Castro benefits from the income from these artists. I think it is pretty sad."

Until very recently, Cuban exiles living in countries like Spain or Canada haven't had trouble at our border, but that too appears to be changing. Cuban-born Alain Perez is the bass player with Paco de Lucia, but the Spanish flamenco guitar giant threatened to cancel his US tour earlier this year because Perez, a resident of Spain, almost didn't get a visa. Booking agents were finally able to work around the delays, allowing audiences like the one at Duke's Page Auditorium to be wowed by Paco, Perez and company.

Executive Director of Duke Performances Kathy Silbiger says "the Patriot Act and tighter travel and visa restrictions for international artists have caused tremendous problems" for presenters. Having suffered several cancellations a year for the past several years, Silbiger says tours out of Cuba are now trickling to a dead halt.

"I was planning to book the Afro-Cuban All-Stars for the current season, but their booking agency decided not to try to make the tour work due to the near impossibility of getting visas for Cuban artists. I did book Ballet Cutumba, another Afro-Cuban group, and then learned in late July that that entire tour had been canceled due to the likelihood they would not get visas."

What does this mean for arts programming? One has to wonder if long-term effects of the shutdown of the delicate machinery of international touring will cause reductions in overall public funding for the arts. It will surely put a dent on private sector businesses, not to mention the livelihood of artists themselves.

"As to how it affects the "bottom line,'" Silbiger elaborates, "we don't generally lose money if we have booked an event and it is cancelled by the agency, since we then are not obligated to pay the fee, but of course we have already invested money in promotion, which is a loss."

Most worrisome of all, Silbiger notes, our region's cultural literacy is already taking the hit.

"I would say that rather than causing a financial deficit, this situation causes an "artistic deficit,' since it really inhibits our ability to bring artists from around the world to our community. Sure, we will look elsewhere -- domestically predominantly to somewhat "make up for' the loss of the Cuban group, and while I don't regard that as compromising artistic standards at all, it is still a crisis in terms of our exposure to cultural diversity."

The increasing scope and magnitude of the difficulty signals a change in enforcement of an obscure clause of pre-9/11 immigration law. Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows that any foreigner may be deemed a detriment to national security at any time, for any reason, as the President sees fit.

"Normally if they're exiles they don't give them any problems," Romero says, commenting on the Alain Perez case. He speculates that what is apparently an outright ban on all Cuban artists entering the US is a symptom of a deeper ideological turn in State Department policy.

A case can be made, he has argued in an editorial on his website, that key figures in the State Department are using the occasion of heightened national security to forward the agenda of the Cuban-American anti-Castro lobby. Romero posted evidence of a smoking gun in the form of comments made by Bush appointee Roger Noriega, an ex-aide to retired Senator Jesse Helms and current Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, to the Cuban Liberty Council. In explicit reference to Cuban nationals who wish to visit the US as performing artists, Noriega states pointblank that "Castro's cash cows will not be grazing through the United States under this administration."

Such comments may form the backdrop and/or the atmosphere in which artists like the cherubic septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer -- a grave threat to homeland security if ever there was one -- were denied visas to attend the 2003 Latin Grammys. Also denied for that event was the less popularly well-known but equally credentialed conductor Zenaida Romeu. This granddaughter of one of Cuba's most renowned classical composers, and her eight-member female chamber orchestra Camerata Romeu, were not considered security risks when they toured here a few years back, including at a show at Duke's Institute for the Arts.

Many artists and agents are unwilling to comment on the record about the trouble they are experiencing. While some express the hope that regime change might be at hand and admit they are quietly waiting for the situation to improve, they are reluctant to put an extra damper on the current situation. One Cuban artist, greencarded and living in the United States, says the ghost of Cuba-US relations haunts him whenever he is asked to tour abroad. "Just to be able to go to Europe, we have to go through so much paperwork and a lot of embarrassment," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ultimately, the United States will lose for having bubble-wrapped its borders, creating the (false) security of a culture free zone. "If Paco wants to tour South America, for instance, Alain [Perez] wouldn't have any problems," observes my anonymous source. "The only country he has problems in would be America, right?" Anyone with a basic knowledge of geography can deduce the short-term consequences of "staying the course' with the current ban on Cuban and other foreign artists. But the long-term damage to America's prestige in the international arts community could be even more profound. What kind of world stage would Carnegie Hall be, for instance, if you no longer invited the world to play there?

Even throughout the Cold War, artists, athletes and the like weren't generally considered the enemy. By contrast, decision-makers in Bush's State Department apparently "don't care about the effect that their policy has on culture," according to Romero.

"Normally in other administrations, the politicians always believed that cultural exchange was beneficial for everybody, and that helped create a bond between different countries and peoples," he says. "You could even spread democracy that way."

Apparently, the thought that goodwill games, music and the arts might be tools against terrorism hasn't occurred to the current administration.

These stories appeared last week in Durham's Independent Weekly.

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