NEW YORK — Before this year, Cuban filmmaker Gerardo Chijona had not been to the United States in almost a decade. So far in 2011, he’s already come twice.
The director and screenwriter of the 2010 film Ticket to Paradise is one of some 200 Cuban musicians, filmmakers, artists, dancers and writers who are expected in New York City this spring for what promoters say is an unprecedented display of Cuban culture. After months of increased cultural exchanges between the two nations, the Si Cuba Festival has become the most significant demonstration of the Obama administration’s departure from Bush-era policies.
“I applied for a visa once, was rejected and surrendered,” Chijona said Thursday night at the private screening of his latest film, part of the Havana Film Festival New York. “Only through dialogue can you understand each other. As we say in Cuba, ‘when you close the dominoes, there’s no more conversation.’”
The Havana Film Festival New York is one of 14 New York arts organizations participating in the Si Cuba Festival, which officially opened last week and goes until June. Costing an estimated $2 million, the festival will showcase everything from classical ballet dancers to contemporary artists.
Among the legends of Cuban entertainment expected are the National Ballet of Cuba and its famed director, Alicia Alonso. Folkloric dance troupe The Muñequitos de Matanzas, the Septeto Nacional, the Creole Choir of Cuba, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and the Cutumba folkloric ballet dance company are also scheduled. They’ll be joined by Cuban-Americans such as the Ballet Hispanico’s Eduardo Vilaro and exile singers Xiomara Laugart and Pedrito Martinez, who moved to New York in the late 90s.
For some of the groups, it will be their first time performing in the United States.
“This is the thing about Cuban art: across every venue and every art form, you’re going to see extraordinary quality,” said Karen Brooks-Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the festival’s umbrella group. “I think New York will respond very well to this.”
Brooks-Hopkins and other organizers said the unusual parade of Cuban works offers a “safe space” for artists and Cuba-lovers to engage — away from politics. But experts acknowledged that the event is possible in New York City, far from the politically-charged atmosphere in Miami, where such performances often end in litigation.
“I don’t know if they could do this in Miami,” Chijona said. “They’re kind of hard-headed there. But if they invite me, I’d go.”
In December, the Miami City Commission unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress to end such exchanges, and Hialeah did the same in February. At the request of the American Missile Crisis Association, Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower asked a city commission subcommittee to study it and come up with a similar proposal.
Among the objections are that only the Cuban artists who follow the party line get to participate. And it’s not like exile performers such as Willy Chirino would get to put on a show along Havana’s malecon, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado said.
“It seems this is a one-way street,” Regalado said. “It only creates problems and controversy in the Cuban community. That’s why I believe it should be stopped. It’s not fair to Cuban artists here.”
Regalado wrote a letter to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen about it, and instructed the city’s lobbying team to press legislators.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Miami last week called for an investigation into whether meddling by county commissioners led to the abrupt cancellation of the Fuego Cuban Music Worlds Festival, which was scheduled for Saturday at the Homestead Miami International Speedway.
The event was scrapped a day after County Commissioner Lynda Bell balked on Spanish radio.
“You can have this kind of festival in New York, but you can’t have it in Miami, where most of the people are who would be interested in seeing it,” said ACLU-Greater Miami President John de Leon. “The reasons put forth by the respective city commissions calling for the prohibition of cultural presentations government officials oppose in Florida are the same as those of a dictatorship in Cuba. They are mirror images of each other.”
Cuban painter Armando Mariño, who moved to New York last year, said as much as everyone wants to say otherwise, art is political.
“This is a political event: it’s organized by a certain group on the left, which is against the embargo; that’s evident and clear,” said Mariño, whose paintings will be exhibited at Queloides, an artistic exploration of race in Cuba. “Politics is one of the branches of art. To say that art takes place outside of everything is impossible.
“But people also need to understand that Fidel is not the protagonist of this show.”
Queloides curator Elio Rodriguez agreed.
“People will not be clapping because the performers are more socialist or less socialist,” said Rodriguez, who splits his time between Havana and Madrid. “They have to dance very well.”
Festival co-chair Ben Rodriguez-Cubeñas said organizers deliberately raised only private funds.
“We stayed away from government money, stayed away from any politics,” said Rodriguez-Cubeñas, founder of the Cuban Artists Fund. “It has taken a long time to build the trust and relationships — and for the stars to align — for this thing to happen.”
Funders include the Cuban Artists Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation.
“At first we’d go to Cuba, and they were like: What are you doing here? What do you want?” he said. “They don’t have a concept of philanthropic foundations. The Cuban American National Foundation is their concept of ‘foundation.’ It is amazing that this is happening.’’
He and others suggested that the festival could become the first step in broader engagement policy between the two nations.
While the Obama administration has allowed more travel to and from Cuba and permitted more cash remittances to the island, most experts are still waiting for Cuba’s quid pro quo. With an American sub-contractor jailed in Cuba for distributing U.S. government communications equipment, relations between the two governments remain chilly even while the cultural sphere has exploded.
“It does not surprise me that cultural exchange is the first step in a broader policy,” said Susan Segal, president and chief executive of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, one of the festival organizers. “As people understand more about culture and have more commonalties in literature and music and dance, they understand that engaging is better than not engaging.”
Laugart, who will sing later this month at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, said it’s the first time in the more than 10 years that she has lived in New York that she’ll see so many people from home perform back-to-back.
“What an accomplishment!” she said. “New York City Latinos are not going to forget this festival: I’m going to make that clear when I perform. It will be intravenous Cuban music.”