When 30-year-old Erik Iglesias Rodríguez — the med school student-turned-bandleader Cimafunk — took the stage at Miami’s Global Cuba Festival in March, the crowd’s enthusiastic roar nearly overwhelmed the sound system. Cimafunk represents Havana’s modern street sound: an electrifying combination of funk and soul, layered over the five-beat clave, or the heartbeat of Cuban music, brought to Cuba by enslaved people from West Africa.
“There’s a strong connection between Miami and Cuba,” explains Cimafunk. “We’re all Cubans regardless of where we live, or how or why we got to where we are now.”
Following President Obama’s 2014 restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and subsequent cultural exchange program, there has been an artistic renaissance between the Cuban people and its diaspora — but it’s now facing increasing opposition in South Florida. Old feelings die hard in Miami, home to many Cuban exiles and their families; and since Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel signed off on Decree 349, which prohibits artists from performing in public or private spaces without approval from the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Miami officials share suspicions that Cuba manipulated the cultural exchange agreement to favor artists who do not criticize the regime.
In June, Miami’s City Commission passed a resolution asking Congress to enact legislation “to permit states and local governments to prohibit the contracting with performers and artists who do business with or are funded by Cuba.” Until the Cuban government realigns with the word and spirit of the cultural exchange, reads the resolution, private bookings may face a ban.
Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez, a Cuban American, is one of the resolution’s sponsors. “I think there is a frustration; it is very difficult when you have artists come from Cuba under a supposed cultural exchange program,” says Suarez. “They are making money from our citizens and go back to Cuba, essentially talking up a brutal dictatorship which has denied people basic human rights.”
But promoters have doubts that throttling the cultural exchange is an effective strategy. “The lack of exchange only perpetuates these closed-minded systems,” says James Quinlan, executive director of the Rhythm Foundation and co-presenter of the Global Cuba Festival. “Once the exchange begins to demystify and de-demonize the ‘other,’ it is a beginning of an awareness and an understanding that leads to change.”
President Trump’s restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba have only further emboldened Miami’s growing anti-engagement movement. U.S. embassy consular services in Havana ceased nearly two years ago, meaning U.S. visas now have to be obtained abroad, usually in Colombia or Mexico. Additional layers of State Department security questions and data requests make the process ever more opaque. Such measures pose additional difficulties for Cuban artists, already persecuted and censored at home, seeking to grow their audience. “[The resolution] is somewhat symbolic of the last stand of the old guard in Miami,” says Collin Laverty, Cimafunk’s international manager.
South Florida Cuban Americans are a politically powerful group. When Los Van Van, a Cuban dance band that has been accused of loyalty to the late Fidel Castro and his successors, played the Miami Arena in 1999, thousands angrily demonstrated against them. When they returned in 2010, however, the reception was less hostile.
“A lot of the rhetoric from the anti-engagement folks is no different from what they did and have done for many years,” says Bill Martinez, an immigration lawyer and Cuban arts advocate. “I doubt it is going to get very far. The majority of the country wants to see better U.S.-Cuba relations. Nothing gets done without being able to talk and engage and have these cultural exchanges.”
The anger bubbled over in 2019, when Cuban stars Señorita Dayana, El Micha and Jacob Forever were scheduled to perform in the city of Hialeah on July 4th. Following residents’ complaints, the city’s mayor cancelled their appearances. Forever, a former member of Cuban reggaeton group Gente de Zona whose real name is Yosdani Jacob Carmenates, was surprised. “I feel bad; very sad about not being able to sing in a place where I had already been in front of 20,000 people in 2018,” says Carmenates. “It’s unfair. I live in the United States. I have residence and I pay taxes. I’m not a politician. I’m not a communist. I am simply a family man and I am an artist.”
Dr. Orlando Gutierrez Boronat, co-founder of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a Miami-based anti-Castro organization, consulted with the mayor of Hialeah on the show’s status. “A good chunk of Cuba tourism and entertainment is controlled by the [Cuban] armed forces, through multiple different corporations,” says Gutierrez Boronat. “Many of these artists are playing a double game of coming here and at the same time, complying with or collaborating with regime corporations.” Supporting such bans, some Miami-based artists see the cultural exchange as unbalanced, with Cuba refusing visas to artists like the Miami-based, Grammy-winning Cuban singer Willy Chirino.
Chirino served as the replacement for the artists banned from the Hialeah concert. The 72-year-old crooner came to Miami in “Operation Peter Pan,” or the 1961 exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States. Chirino has dreams of performing in Cuba, but lyrics denouncing the Cuban government — namely from his anthem amongst Cuban exiles, “Nuestro Día Ya Viene Llegando” (“Our Day is Coming”) — puts it out of reach.
“My biggest frustration is if you are Cuban and you know what goes on over there, you have a moral obligation to your own people to speak out,” Chirino says. “Whatever the consequences, to let the world know what goes on politically over there. Instead, they decide to shut up about it.”
In Cuban-American relations, the common ground seems to be quicksand, once again. “You don’t defeat censorship with censorship,” says Miami-based Cuban American filmmaker Joe Cardona. “I think people have the right to play. There is a debate to be had whether public money should be spent on it. Without that debate, to just decide to ban people or to not have them play, seems like a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t think that is the way to combat it.”