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Cubans Barred in Visa Crackdown

Security: Chucho Valdes and others fall victim to State Department rules tightened after attack.


The controversy surrounding Cuban musicians and the Latin Grammys flared again Wednesday as the island's entire contingent was unable to attend the awards ceremony in Hollywood because the 22 artists and producers didn't receive U.S. visas.

The Cuban artists, including pianist Chucho Valdes, who won an award Wednesday for best pop instrumental album, were caught in a tightening web of security measures imposed on foreign visitors since last year's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The stricter procedures have delayed the issuance of visas, in particular for artists coming from those nations--including Cuba--listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism, a designation the Cuban government has rejected.

"It's bad news in general, but it's worse news if you're Cuban," says Bill Martinez, a San Francisco attorney who spearheaded the drive to open the doors to Cuban artists in 1993. "We're back to square one."

In a flip of protests surrounding last year's Latin Grammys by anti-Castro groups objecting to the planned participation by Cuban performers, a small group of demonstrators outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Wednesday protested the de facto exclusion of Cuba's artists from this year's Latin Grammys ceremony.

"This is a blow to the rights of the people of this country and Washington's way of putting a Berlin Wall around Cuba," said Jon Hillson, a local union activist and organizer of the protest, which was mostly quiet, with groups of three and four people holding signs in spots around the Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard area.

Laurence Shoobs, another protester and coordinator of the Los Angeles Cuban Sister City Project, said, "In the absence of normal relations between our countries, these cultural exchanges become the nexus for the people of Cuba and the people of the United States to become less estranged from each other."

Martinez said he fears the uncertainty regarding visas will have a chilling effect on promoters, who may back away from bringing Cuban acts to the U.S. Already, he has advised Los Van Van, Cuba's premier dance band, to forgo plans for a U.S. tour in November. Accordingly, the San Francisco Jazz Festival announced Wednesday that the band has canceled its festival appearances, originally set for Nov. 8 and 9.

It now takes at least 12 weeks for a security clearance, but even then the issuance of visas, which had become routine for Cuban acts, is not assured, he said. A State Department spokesman confirmed Wednesday that new security procedures have become especially tight for artists from seven nations on the U.S. list of terrorist nations. Besides Valdes, the Cuban nominees this year included the a cappella group Vocal Sampling and rapper X Alfonso.

"These individuals, unfortunately, had not lined their ducks up in time," said Charles Barclay, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in Washington.

Although he acknowledges the need for improved security, Martinez called the new procedures "Kafkaesque" and "nonsensical" when applied to known performers with "unblemished" records.

"Chucho's been here a million times," the lawyer notes. "Did he become a terrorist overnight?"

Valdes and other top Cuban stars were in Los Angeles for last year's ill-fated Latin Grammys show, which was scheduled the day of the Sept. 11 attacks and was canceled.

Valdes and his stranded Cuban colleagues later participated in a concert to raise funds for police and fire personnel killed in the attacks.


Times staff writer Michael Quintanilla contributed to this report.

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