The embargo against Cuba has stood for more than 50 years, with Florida's Cuban-American population playing a pivotal role in pushing for the island nation's continued isolation. That made the Florida Orchestra's decision to reach across the Straits of Florida for a cultural exchange with musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba a bold stroke. Now, as the Florida Orchestra prepares for its Election Day collaboration with Cuban musicians in Ybor City, it appears a diplomatic seed has been planted using the shared language of music.
There is nothing easy about bringing off a cultural exchange with a country that has been essentially shut off from the United States since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. Michael Pastreich, the Florida Orchestra's president and CEO, worked through two government bureaucracies and has had to raise more than $100,000 so far. Last year, the orchestra launched its multiyear exchange by sending a wind quintet to the island for performances and to teach master classes. Since mid October, more than 70 Cuban musicians have been giving concerts in the United States. Tuesday, they will be in the bay area to perform a joint chamber music concert at the Cuban Club in Ybor City; on Wednesday, the full National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba will give a concert at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
Pastreich hopes the exchange will raise the Florida Orchestra's profile and boost its impact in the Tampa Bay community. There is no denying the significance of Cuban musicians performing alongside their Florida counterparts on the very day that Americans go to the polls in an election that could decide whether future such exchanges are even possible. President Barack Obama has relaxed some travel and other restrictions on Cuba. If Republican challenger Mitt Romney wins, those policies could be reversed.
But the cultural connection is intended to transcend politics and reinforce the common history of two peoples united by a love of musical artistry and a shared classical canon. On a tour of Ybor City the musicians will learn of the area's once-thriving Cuban cigar industry that, at its peak, had nearly 200 factories, and about 19th century Cuban liberator Jose Marti's trips to Tampa to raise money to help win independence from Spain. That cultural glue will be solidified with future planned exchanges — as long as the governments don't get in the way of the people.