Politics collides with art as Kennedy Center prepares for Cuban culture festival

Singer Aymée Nuviola, who was born in Cuba and now lives in Miami, is one of the performers on opening night of the Kennedy Center's Artes de Cuba festival on May 8.
Singer Aymée Nuviola, who was born in Cuba and now lives in Miami, is one of the performers on opening night of the Kennedy Center's Artes de Cuba festival on May 8. Courtesy of the artist

Despite the frost on U.S.-Cuba relations, the biggest Cuban cultural extravaganza ever held in the United States will get under way next week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Almost every space of the performing arts center on the banks of the Potomac will be devoted to some aspect of Cuban and Cuban-American culture, with more than 50 events scheduled during Artes de Cuba's May 8-20 run. Over the course of two weeks, 420 performers — 242 from the island and 178 from the Cuban diaspora — will serve up a rich Cuban stew of music, dance, theater, art, film, graphic arts and fashion.

Among the performers: the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which made its U.S. debut at the Kennedy Center 40 years ago; 87-year-old Omara Portuondo, the diva of the Buena Vista Social Club; the Havana Lyceum Orchestra; Teatro El Público; jazz pianists Aldo López-Gavilán and Jorge Luis Pacheco; drummer Yissy; Los Van Van; Afro-Cuban jazz musician Yosvany Terry, who now lives in New York, and Miami-based Aymée Nuviola, a multi-genre singer who glides from timba to ballads.

The Kennedy Center's Terrace Gallery will be transformed into the Cubano Club, where mojitos and other Cuban cocktails will be served, and artist Esterio Segura will display Hybrid of a Chrysler, an installation made of vintage Cuban car parts, on the river terrace. To add to the ambiance, classic car collectors will park their vehicles on the plaza. Every night at 6 p.m. there also will be free performances at the Millennium Stage.

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Vingsay Valdes, left, and Patricio Reve dance in a Ballet Nacional de Cuba performance of Don Quixote. The company will perform both Don Quixote and Giselle at the Kennedy Center. Nancy Reyes Coutesy Kennedy Center

"It's certainly the largest Cuban festival that's ever been held in the United States and the Cubans have told us it's the largest Cuban festival ever held outside Cuba," said Alicia Adams, the festival's curator and vice president of international programming and dance. "We are trying to invite people into Cuban culture through as many windows as we can."

Efforts to organize Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World began about three years ago when the Obama administration opening to Cuba was in full swing, but the idea had been percolating for about 20 years, said Adams.

Her interest began during a Smithsonian-led trip to the island in 1999. She met both Alonso and Mendive on the trip and kept the idea of a Cuba festival at the Kennedy Center in the back of her mind. "Cuba punches way above its weight in the artists it has created and given to the world," she said.

Through the years, the Kennedy Center has presented more than 20 such festivals focusing on countries and regions from Europe, Africa and Asia to the Arab world, Central and South America, Japan and Australia.

Adams is well aware that U.S.-Cuba relations have taken a turn for the worse since the Kennedy Center began organizing the Cuba festival and the Trump administration began a more restrictive business and travel policy for Cuba.

The Havana Lyceum Orchestra will perform selections by Cuban-born composers at the Kennedy Center Courtesy of the artist

Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World, the 2009 festival, also came at a time of tensions but it was still "meaningful and enjoyable to the audiences," said Adams. The Kennedy Center also hosted the Bolshoi Ballet during the height of the Cold War, she noted.

"Part of this is about cultural diplomacy. We're part of soft power," she said. "Arts are the best tool we have to bring people together."

The Cuba festival isn't without controversy. Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires wrote a letter to David M. Rubenstein and Deborah Rutter, the chairman and president, respectively, of the Kennedy Center, expressing their "profound concern" about the festival at the nation's performing arts center.

"It appears that the festival will feature pro-regime artists and propagandists while Cuba's varied independent artists are seemingly unrepresented," they wrote. Many artists in the Kennedy Center program, they said, "have been long-time apologists for the Castro regime."

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Omara Portuondo, winner of a Latin Grammy Award, is among the Cuban artists that Cuban-American legislators call "longtime apologists for the Castro regime." She will perform during Artes de Cuba at the Kennedy Center. Carlos Pericaas Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

And they faulted the Kennedy Center for not including "courageous artists" such as Tania Bruguera, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera in the program. Adams said D'Rivera, a 14-time Grammy award winner, appeared at the Kennedy Center in December and the center has had a long relationship with Sandoval both as a performer and composer.

While there are artists who are identified with the Cuban Revolution, such as Cuban nueva trova movement founder Pablo Milanés, who will do a cameo with his daughter Haydée Milanés and her trio, Adams said: "I don't ask artists about their politics. I'm only looking at them for art. Many of them have already performed in Miami and around the United States. The Cuban government had nothing to do with out selections. These are great artists as well as some who are coming up through the ranks now."

Adams also noted that the Havana-based Malpaso Dance Company, which will perform May 11 and 12, is an independent company that receives no funding from the Cuban government.

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The Malpaso Dance Compnay will perfomr at the Kennedy Center on May 11 and 12. Bill Hebert Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

"I'm not looking to bring artists who are protesters or who are highly politicized. There is a place for that but that's not what this festival does. It's a broad introduction to the best that exists in Cuba," Adams said.

The same members of Congress, plus U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami, also sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information about the process for granting visas to the Cuban artists, saying "the availability of U.S. entry to so many propagandists at a time of severely reduced staffing at the U.S. post in Havana is troubling."

Last September, after two dozen U.S. diplomatic personnel at the embassy in Havana began to complain of mysterious health ailments, the United States withdrew about two-thirds of its diplomats. Now only a skeletal staff remains at the embassy and it does no visa processing except for foreign diplomats and government officials or for extreme emergency cases. Immigrant visa services for Cubans have been transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, and Cubans seeking non-immigrant visas can apply at U.S. embassies around the world.

Adams said the visas for the Cuban artists weren't issued in Havana. All 242 of the Cubans needing visas flew to Mexico City and were interviewed and presented their paperwork at the U.S. Embassy there. "It was a logistical nightmare," said Adams. "We could have quit and said this is too much, but we thought it was important."

Cooler relations under the Trump administration have already taken a toll on other cultural events. The National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, which has played in the United States many times, canceled a February 2019 tour because of visa challenges. The Havana-based Teatro El Público, which also will perform at Artes de Cuba, flew to Mexico City in late December for visa interviews for a Minneapolis performance. But the performers missed their flight when the visas came through only the afternoon before their Jan. 4 opening performance and they had to hastily rebook on two different flights.

Even Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has gotten into the act. In a letter to Pompeo, he called the Cuban artists who will appear at the Kennedy Center "agents of the dictatorship." He suggested that "until the Cuban government eases the ongoing repression on the Ladies in White and the other pro-democracy and human rights actvisits, the U.S. should not grant any visas to any individual affiliated with the regime."

The artists who will perform at the Kennedy Center represent many permutations of being Cuban. Many live in Cuba; some travel the world performing from a Cuban base; others were born in the United States; eight live in Europe, and still others like Nuviola, who was born in Cuba, now make their homes in Miami and around the United States. Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado presented her the key to her adopted city in 2016.

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Miami group Tiempo Libre will perform May 20 on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. Elvis Suarez GlassWorks

"We see their work as being very inspiring," said Adams. "We want people to also be inspired by the work that has come out of this island and to appreciate the beauty and humanity of the Cuban people."

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @heraldmimi