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Miami's War of Words

For members of Miami's Cuban-American community, the war with Castro rages on
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

(continued from page 4)

With their guy at the top of his game, his handlers aren't about to risk any slippage. So, I'm cleared for a meeting with Secada only after I agree to steer away from politics and, most especially, not elicit any opinions on Cuba. The interview takes place near Coconut Grove at an Estefan-owned studio where Secada is recording his next album. Secada waxes eloquent about Miami.  

"This city is by far the most important center for Latin American music," he gushes. "Every major artist passes through. There was a time when Miami was dominated by Cuban music, but no more. I consider myself a Cuban-African-American, a product of the Cuban community here, with an American perspective. But I've made the transition beyond the Cuban audience. To tell you the truth, I'm more aware of what's coming out of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic than Cuba."  

Since he's broached the subject of Cuban music, I figure it won't hurt to ask about the Buena Vista Social Club. The Havana-based group, composed of rediscovered legendary performers of Cuban music, has had a hit movie, packed concerts in American cities (with the glaring exception of Miami), and won a Grammy in 1997 for its nostalgic Cuban roots music, much in the style of Secada's beloved Aunt Moraima. But when I ask him, Secada's ebullience vanishes. "I just don't know anything about them," he replies, looking at his hands. But surely, he's heard their albums? "Uh, no...." Somehow, the notion that a two-time Latin Grammy winner might be unaware of another Latin Grammy winner--a group from his native Cuba that has become a cross-cultural phenomenon--strains credulity.  

Secada's reticence doesn't surprise Debbie Ohanian, owner of Starfish, a popular Miami Beach nightclub. "There isn't much support in the exile community for Cuban musicians, even the legendary ones who moved over here," says Ohanian, a flamboyantly attractive Armenian-American. "The music they grew up with becomes taboo. They not only hate Fidel. They hate everybody who chooses to stay on the island."  

Ohanian, who relishes controversy, has managed to channel this hatred into profits by bringing Cuban musicians to Miami. Last year, she helped promote a concert here by Los Van Van, which takes its name from an old Communist slogan and remains one of Castro's favorite groups. Radio commentators railed against her, and her nightclub was picketed.   "I became public enemy numero uno in this town," says Ohanian, who turned the adverse publicity to her advantage. When an exile group threatened to take videos of people attending the Los Van Van concert, she encouraged ticket-holders to show up wearing masks of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and other well-known anti-Castro hard-liners.  

Painting, like music, gets grossly refracted through Miami's ideological prism. For much of the exile community, there can be no separation between politics and art: a painter who remains in Cuba is a Castro agent, and cannot be considered on his artistic merits alone. Nothing illustrates the consequences of this bias more than the wretched destiny of the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, the only institution of its kind ever created in Miami.  

In 1988, the then-young, struggling museum held a fund-raising auction of works by Cubans, including a few "official" artists, as those living in Cuba are called. The reaction among anti-Castro exiles was explosive. Daily demonstrations were held in front of the museum. A group of protestors bought a painting by Manuel Mendive--an official Cuban artist--and proceeded to burn it publicly. Later, a bomb seriously damaged the museum, and another went off under the car of a museum official (no one was injured).  

The protests continued for several years. The Miami city government attempted to evict the museum from its premises, prompting the museum to sue on the grounds that its First Amendment rights were being violated. It won its case in United States District Court. But the bruising struggles frightened away donors and visitors and eventually bankrupted the museum. Last year, the museum and its collection of nearly 500 Cuban paintings and sculptures became part of the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum.  

"It was the most viable alternative," says Ramón Cernuda, who as a director of the Cuban Museum backed the controversial fund-raising auction. Cernuda, a successful publisher, and his wife, Nercys Ganem, have amassed what is arguably the best collection of Cuban art outside of the National Museum in Havana. Their first acquisitions date from their flight from Cuba in 1960. Now expanded to more than three hundred works, their collection is entirely devoted to twentieth-century Cuban artists.  

The cool white walls of the Cernuda apartment, high above the Miami oceanfront, are a perfect backdrop for the intensely tropical colors of the paintings. Though most of the works precede the Castro regime, some are by more recent artists who have aroused the ire of the exile community. There is a painting of a fish bowl that once hung in New York's Museum of Modern Art by Mariano Rodríguez, whose enthusiasm for Castro led him to denounce fellow artists who failed to demonstrate sufficient revolutionary fervor. There is also a hyperrealist tropical landscape by Tomás Sánchez.  

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