By Johannes Werner
We just witnessed one of the most remarkable displays of U.S. power in Cuba in 50 years — and only a handful of people in the United States watched.
Maybe that’s because the moment didn’t have anything to do with the Fourth Fleet, regime change efforts, or end-of-embargo bills. It wasn’t even about Pilgrim’s Pride frozen chicken-quarter sales. Maybe Americans didn’t watch because the small moment was drowned out by the noise around the “Peace without Borders” mega-concert in Havana that got 1.15 million Cubans dancing on the Revolution Square.
Here’s the moment I am talking about: In October, Jonathan Farrar hosted a party in Havana, and 200 Cubans came.
Farrar happens to be the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section, and the 200 guests happened to be, plain and simple, the cream of the crop among Cuban artists. The list of partygoers at Farrar’s residence in Cubanacan was — I have abstained from using this adjective since I turned 18 — awesome. If you don’t have any insights into Cuban culture, let me put it this way: It was the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, Zubin Mehta, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg, and David Letterman all attending the same party at a foreign embassy in Washington.
We haven’t seen anything like it in decades, and Farrar’s reception certainly chipped off a chunk from the wall of ice built up in 50 years of frosty U.S.-Cuba relations. But even more remarkable is the way the party came about.
What triggered the flood of VIPs was a simple step Farrar made: This time, the usual handful of dissidents was not invited. As John McAuliff, a New York-based advocate for lifting the travel ban, put it: “As with the European embassies, and U.S. embassies in other countries, USINT will relate to dissidents as one part of the Cuban reality,” rather than putting them at “the center of attention.”
Farrar’s move was apparently noticed by Cuban officials, and that, in turn, opened the floodgates of long held-back longing for Carnegie Hall, Broadway, Latin Grammies, and Hollywood among Cuban artists. One of the prominent partygoers explained to the correspondent of Spanish daily El País that before previous USINT events, he would infallibly find a message from the Cuban ministry of culture on his answering machine, alerting him that dissidents would attend. “So that got you thinking about it,” the musician explained his previous absence to El País. Then, he added: “Now, there weren’t any messages.”
In other words: The absence of a dozen guests, combined with the absence of a short message on the answering machines of other guests is what triggered a stampede of VIPs.
That speaks to the power of American culture among Cuba’s elite. I don’t think the Canadian, Spanish, Venezuelan or Chinese embassies in Havana could achieve a similar feat.
The dust has settled after the biggest public non-government event in Cuba since the pope visit 11 years ago, and a clear loser has emerged: Small exile groups advocating the unconditional surrender of Cuba. Using Che Guevara-style registers, the “unconditionals” have bullied themselves into a corner from which it will be tough to re-emerge.
The mega-concert organized by Colombian Miami resident Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez (known by some as Juanes), mobilized not only 10 percent of all Cubans on the island, but also thousands mostly younger Cuban Americans in Miami. That mobilization, in turn, resulted in what media called the “battle of the Versailles.” On the day of the concert, a small but vociferous group of 60-somethings called Vigilia Mambisa announced a public steamrolling of CDs by artists participating in the concert. Vigilia Mambisa had planned to do this on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant and traditional stronghold of hardliners in Miami. But before they could begin the steamrolling, another group of Cubans intent on watching the concert, wielding bigger numbers and larger Cuban flags, literally pushed the smaller group of hardliners across 8th Street.
Even Miami is changing…
Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Standard.