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U.S.'s dissident-free party a big draw for Cuban performers and artists

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 small moment didn't have anything to do with the Fourth Fleet, regime change efforts, or end-of-embargo bills.

Here's the moment I am talking about: In October, Jonathan Farrar hosted a party in Havana, and 200 Cubans came.

Farrar is the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section, and the 200 guests at his residence in Cubanacan were, plain and simple, the cream of the crop among Cuban artists — jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, salsa superstar Juan Formell, composer Zenaida Romeu, and famous painters Roberto Fabelo, Choco and Mendive.

It was the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen, Oprah Winfrey, 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 unfailingly 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."

That speaks to the enduring 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.

Mariel means money

Remember the big hoopla three years ago in Washington about an Arab company running U.S. ports? Dubai Ports World (DPW) is now eyeing a project in Cuba that stands to benefit from future trade with the United States.

Despite Cuba's cash crunch and a steep drop in imports, DPW is forging ahead with its $300 million container terminal project in Mariel. Cuban officials would like the small port 30 miles west of the capital to relieve the bottleneck at the Port of Havana. But the real value for United Arab Emirates-based DPW probably is Mariel's potential as a container trans-shipment hub for U.S. Gulf Coast ports.

Fighting in the streets

The dust has settled after the biggest public nongovernment event in Cuba since the pope's visit 11 years ago, and a clear loser has emerged: small exile groups, advocating the unconditional surrender of Cuba.

The mega concert organized by Colombian Miami resident Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez (who performs under the single name Juanes) mobilized not only 10 percent of all Cubans on the island, but also thousands of mostly younger Cuban Americans in Miami. That mobilization, in turn, resulted in what South Florida 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 the group 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 Eighth Street.

Even Miami is changing.

World eyes Cuban oil

More food for anxiety in Tallahassee, Houston and Washington: The Vietnamese and Russian state oil companies reportedly agreed to partner in offshore drilling in Cuba. Both PetroVietnam and Zarubezhneft have long track records in deepwater drilling, some of them in joint ventures. The two companies have leases for a total of six offshore blocks in Cuba. PetroVietnam has already conducted seismic tests on its four blocks; Zarubezhneft just contracted two near-shore blocks in 25-year deals with Cuba.

Talking about oil, here's another possible Florida-Cuba link: Invite Cuban oil, tourism and environmental experts to Florida and have them do a show-and-tell about their experiences with near-shore oil drilling.

If the oil industry has its way in Tallahassee, we might get precisely the kind of directional drilling in our 3- 10-mile zone that Canadian and Cuban oil companies have been performing along the northwestern coast of Cuba. Most of the drilling, by the way, is done just miles from Varadero, the beach resort that captures nearly one-third of tourism in Cuba.

Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News, a monthly newsletter, and Cuba Standard, a Web site featuring real-time news about the Cuban economy. He can be reached at

U.S.'s dissident-free party a big draw for Cuban performers and artists 11/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 8:56pm]
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