In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Cuba sets up shop here, and U.S. yawns

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

After too long a time without seeing each other, I recently reunited in Miami with a friend who works in Washington D.C. as a national television correspondent.

She pounds the pavement in Congress and the White House with the frequency some of us reserve for Starbucks.

“The subject of Cuba is not even a blip in Washington’s agenda,” she told me, offering to send me a superb backgrounder on Syria.

I laughed, but it’s not funny.

That lack of interest, however, would partly explain why Cuban government entities — as many as four art galleries from Havana allegedly owned and operated by the state — are set to exhibit and sell art at the Houston Fine Art Fair, which runs Sept.19-22.

The best known are La Casona Gallery and Villa Manuela Art Gallery — both with official email addresses linked to the Cuban government. The other two are the lesser-known 308 Arte Contemporáneo and Collage Habana Gallery, with addresses in Cuba’s Miramar and Centro Habana.

Cuban artists exhibiting in the United States is nothing new. It’s perfectly legal under Treasury Department rules — and healthy for those of us who value freedom of expression. If art isn’t about freedom, then what is?

But extending that to the Cuban government setting up shop — four galleries in one art fair — to sell merchandise via state entities? Its representatives here on visitor visas operating a commercial enterprise?

News to me, although according to those involved, at least one of the galleries has participated in art fairs before.

“It’s not like it’s the first time,” said Houston fair director Rick Friedman, president and founder of Hamptons Expo Group, which produces art fairs throughout the country. “How do they actually do it? They may have some agents from the United States helping them out. They do what they have to do to get it done.”

In times long gone, this issue might have aroused some interest when I started to interview people about it, but as my journalist friend said, I sensed more boredom in Washington with the questions from Miami than anything else.

A Treasury Department spokesman sent me links to U.S. regulations that say transactions related to informational materials (that includes art) are authorized and that specific licenses may be issued in a “case-by-case basis.”

If these were independent art galleries open to every Cuban artist, not just to those who toe — or pretend to toe — the government line, I’d say, you’re welcome, and not even pose the question, I explained.

But with the U.S. embargo supposedly in place and the Cuban government still waving the flag that this nation is its enemy, what are they doing here working in sales?

“Our license applies if they are given a visa, so you might want to check with the State Department about travel credentials,” Treasury spokesman John Sullivan wrote me.

But unless the gallery representatives were part of the group that arrived by boat on a Hollywood beach to the cheers of sunbathers — dry foot! — it’s pretty safe to say the gallery representatives are here on visas granted by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

So what?

The cultural exchange with Cuba is supposed to be about the exchange of ideas and “people to people” contact — not dollars. It’s already a misnomer, a one-way street in which Cubans take full advantage of their experience here but Americans are limited in their participation there.

Will the galleries pay taxes on their sales, I wonder?

But so what?

Our new U.S. Cuba policy is to turn a blind eye.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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