Sunday, January 31, 2010

Los Van Van Return (Part 3) [Updated]

This afternoon, local Spanish radio station "La Poderosa" (WWFE 670AM) was in close contact with Miguel Saavedra, leader of Vigilia Mambisa, by phone. In these last few days, WWFE, like Radio Mambi, has given plenty of air time to Saavedra and others planning to attended today's protest of Los Van Van in downtown Miami. Saavedra reported lots of excitement as people prepared the caravan leaving from Little Havana. Yesterday, Saavedra was invited on Radio Mambi's "Mesa Redonda" (with Armando Perez-Roura) for a full hour informing listeners about the several departure locations around Miami heading towards the James L. Knight center. As I write, the protest has already begun.

Lots of rumors and misinformation have spread since Los Van Van first appeared in Miami in 1999. All of them have been essentially used to defame and denigrate the Cuban band, who happen to be immensely popular in Cuba. But, to recognize their incredible success seems to be taboo in Miami.


Many detractors of Los Van Van accuse the band of "provocation" by their presence in Miami. This argument assumes that Los Van Van represent the Cuban government, and since the City of Miami inhabits many of the victims of the Cuban government, it would be an outrage to welcome them because it would "provoke" the trauma of Cuban exiles.

This argument falls apart simply because Los Van Van (the band) do not represent the Cuban government. If they did, then their lyrics (for example) would immediately resemble the appearances of Cuban government policy or ideology. But, once one reviews their lyrics, it becomes clear that Los Van Van talk about what most other songwriters talk about: love, relationships, the larger meanings of life, etc. Whatever personal political opinions any group members might have are absent.

Also, many Cuban exile militants misrepresent the popularity of Los Van Van by suggesting that only Cuban riff-raff listen to them. These remarks not only highlight the contempt that some Cubans have for other Cubans in Miami, but also tend to highlight the cultural differences between Cubans by their wave of arrival to the U.S. (such as those that listen to Timba, and those that refuse to).

Finally, one of the reasons Los Van Van eventually came to Miami in 1999 was because of their radio popularity noticed a couple years before, and not simply to provoke.


This is probably the next most mentioned allegation against Los Van Van: their name is in honor (or recognition) of a Cuban government program that pressured Cubans to cut sugar cane in 1970 with a propaganda campaign that went: "Y de que van, van. Los diez millones van!" (Those that go, go. The ten million must go!)

According to Juan Formell, leader and founder of Los Van Van: "Our name had nothing to do with that. It was just a coincidence, a phrase that was fashionable then. Nothing more. And there’s nothing else, no other story. 'Van van' in Spanish means it will happen, it will go."

The coincidence with their name and the sugar harvest program is unfortunate because it is an event that is recalled by some in exile as forced labor. But, Formell's explanation about the band name makes more sense because it is consistent with their many years of making apolitical music.


Cuban exile militants certainly don't rest went it comes to attacking their perceived enemies. One recent lie that spread recently about Los Van Van said that band leader Juan Formell signed a 2003 letter supporting the Cuban government crackdown of dissidents that year, and the execution of three males. This letter was never signed by Formell (as he declared in a television interview last year), but the lie was repeated many times this month by Ninoska Perez-Castellon on Radio Mambi (who corrected her error this past Friday), and by other militants such as Iliana Curra, an activist linked to the Cuban Liberty Council.

One recent rumor targets Juan Formell's son, who is also a member of Los Van Van. According to this allegation, Samuel Formell was convicted of a heinous crime back in the 1980s and received an 18-year sentence, but was soon set free after the intervention of the Cuban government.

The rumor originates from an article written by a Cuban dissident named Juan Gonzalez Febles. The article mentions many details, but strangely does not provide any dates, such as what year the crime occurred, or when Formell was supposedly released. The article has spread throughout the internet, among the usual anti-Castro blogs, to a mention in a recent El Nuevo Herald article, and to a post in the Miami New Times blog. According to Jorge Casuso of the Miami New Times, this alleged crime occurred in 1984 based on anonymous sources "who were closely and personally acquainted with Formell and the victim's family."

It should be noted that rumors usually begin by supposedly "close" acquaintances, especially in Miami.

[Update: CBS4 has first video of tonight's protest]
[Update2: Video of protest and concert from Zayramo]
[Update3: Some photos by El Nuevo Herald]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Los Van Van Return (Part 2)

Yesterday, Emilio Izquierdo Jr. appeared on Radio Mambi to inform listeners about the planned protest for Sunday (Jan. 31) at the James L. Knight Center. Cuba's "Rolling Stones of Salsa," Los Van Van, are scheduled to perform that evening as they had intended a decade ago. Host Ninoska Perez-Castellon made sure to write down all the important information for the protest against the band Izquierdo described as "the most representative" music group of the Cuban government.

According to Izquierdo, who describes himself as a spokesperson for UMAP News, there will be four locations throughout Miami that will be the departure points for caravans heading to the Knight Center, with some locations providing bus transportation. As expected, the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana is among the departure locations. The protest at the Knight Center is expected to start around 5pm. Izquierdo suggests the theme of the protest be "GOD, DEMOCRACY, AND FREEDOM FOR CUBA." And, according to a letter published yesterday by Libre Magazine, Izquierdo also suggests...

"The Cuban exile community of Miami should hold Juan Formell [leader of Los Van Van] and his delinquents prisoner inside the James L. Knight [Center], like the Castro-Chavista accomplice Manuel Zelaya [found] himself inside the Brasilian embassy in Honduras."

If you're beginning to think that this protest is starting to sound like an act of repudiation, which is ironically an act condemned by the Cuban exile community when it targets dissidents inside Cuba, then prepare to be shocked. What is being planned for Sunday is, in my opinion, an act of repudiation, as it was in 1999.


In my previous post I described the actions of the City of Miami to stop the 1999 concert of Los Van Van. The city's discriminatory actions eventually ended when they had to pay over $90,000 in a lawsuit for violating the free speech rights of the concert promoter. What I didn't describe was the reasons behind the actions of the city officials.

When the Knight Center canceled the originally scheduled concert of Los Van Van in 1999, Cuban exile militancy had prevailed. And city officials shared their sentiments. "I am so relieved," said then-City Commissioner Joe Sanchez (loser of last year's mayoral contest). "The city does not need any more controversy," he declared. Then-commissioner Tomas Regalado (now Mayor of the City of Miami) believed the concert was "a challenge to the capital of the exile community," and then-Mayor Joe Carollo described Los Van Van as "the official Communist band of Fidel Castro."* Both Regalado and Carollo at the time made sure to let Miami know how they felt as they appeared on Spanish-language radio, such as Radio Mambi.

All the comments above have resurfaced within the Cuban exile community as the concert by Los Van Van approaches. From Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart calling the leader of Los Van Van the "musical ambassador" of the Cuban government, to Ninoska Perez-Castellon saying that the concert is a "provocation" and an attempt to "penetrate" the Cuban exile community. Encouraged by these leaders of the Cuban exile community, much more radical voices on the radio have also appeared calling Los Van Van "ratas" (rats) or "agents" of the Cuban government. Others have directed their insults towards the fans of Los Van Van calling them "chusma" or riff raff. It's the same kind of language used by Radio Mambi callers more than a decade ago.


When fans of Los Van Van arrived to the Miami Arena that evening of October 9, 1999, they faced a growing crowd of protesters. At its peak, police reported the crowd size around 4,000. Militant Cuban exile groups, like Unidad Cubana, Vigilia Mambisa and the F4 Comandos, were among the protesters. Days before the protest, Miguel Saavedra, leader of Vigilia Mambisa told the Miami Herald that he planned to videotape the concert attendees.

"Miguel Saavedra ... said his group would film those attending but would not publish the pictures. The videos would be kept until the collapse of the Castro government so the successor government could identify concertgoers who were Castro sympathizers."

Entering the Miami Arena to see Los Van Van, some fans met shouting protesters. Without provoking anyone, Mario Garcia was welcomed with a shout: "Communist, male prostitute, gigolo and whore." He was not bothered though, and responded: "I have as much right to listen to Los Van Van as they have to demonstrate." Unfortunately, others met with spitting or being the target of a thrown object. Joseph Adler, artistic director of GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, while leaving the concert was attacked by rocks and eggs. After the concert was over, city riot police escorted concert attendees as they navigated back into the streets. [Video available here]

As the return concert approaches this Sunday, militant Cuban exiles are using desperate efforts to once again denigrate the members of Los Van Van. And, as expected, lies and rumors are spreading.

*[Miami Herald, September 11, 1999, "Concert canceled for Cuban dance band" by Tyler Bridges.]

[Raw footage of the Los Van Van protest from 1999, courtesy of Telemundo51]

[Photo: Protester at Miami Arena, October 9, 1999, courtesy of Villa Granadillo blog.]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Los Van Van Return (Part 1)

When Los Van Van, one of Cuba's most popular music groups, came to Miami in October of 1999 they met opposition from officials of the City of Miami and approximately 4,000 protesters who saw the music group as representatives of the Cuban government. A decade later, times have changed... a bit.

A recently published Miami Herald article concerning the return of Los Van Van for this Sunday forgot to mention the intense (and unlawful) opposition that promoters of the musical group faced from the City of Miami back in 1999. From the moment that city officials, like Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, discovered that Los Van Van had scheduled a performance in downtown Miami they took immediate actions to stop them. Debbie Ohanian, promoter of Los Van Van at the time, had already reached an agreement with the James L. Knight center for a September performance, but after the City of Miami intervened the venue imposed new regulations and the show was eventually canceled.

The Miami city attorney demanded Los Van Van to present additional documentation that no other city had ever requested, and the city also demanded Ohanian purchase "liability insurance to cover the venue's losses if disturbances on the night of the concert forced the Knight Center to cancel other events." One of those possible "disturbances" that the City of Miami had on their minds demanded Ohanian purchase "an additional two-million-dollar insurance policy so the city could rebuild the [James L. Knight] theater if it were blown up." This particular deal with the city was described by one the negotiatiors as "additional insurance over and above what [the City of Miami] would normally require of concert promoters."

These discriminatory measures were being imposed at the same time that Mayor Carollo was on Radio Mambi with Armando Perez-Roura expressing his opposition to the concert. As Radio Mambi callers insulted Los Van Van calling them "dogs" and "garbage," Mayor Carollo seemed undisturbed, even after a caller threatened to attack the Knight Center.

Negotiations with the City of Miami eventually broke down and Ohanian soon reached a deal that would allow Los Van Van to perform at the Miami Arena (demolished in 2008). The concert was scheduled for October 9, 1999, the same day that a Cuban exile organization would schedule a movie screening at the Knight Center, and after which they would provide shuttles to the Miami Arena for their planned protest of Los Van Van.

After the performance, the City of Miami mobilized about 50 police in riot gear to protect and escort the leaving audience from the estimated crowd of 4,000 protesters. Police grew concerned that night with some protesters who earlier threw objects at the concert-goers. Three city commissioners who observed the protest that night became upset at the show of force by the police department and vowed to not let Los Van Van (or any other Cuban music group) to perform in Miami again. One of those commissioners is now the mayor of the City of Miami (Tomas Regalado), and another was recently re-elected as a city commissioner (Willy Gort).

Willy Gort described the concert at the Miami Arena as something similar "to having a Nazi band play before Miami Beach's Jewish community." Immediately after the concert he promised to propose "a resolution to the City Commission that would force the promoter of a band who draws a massive crowd to pay for all police and other expenses instead of sending the bill to taxpayers."

Ohanian was forced to pay the City of Miami over $36,000 for security costs for the night of the concert. She sued the city the following year, and in 2004 won her lawsuit. The City of Miami had to pay back over $90,000. The judge described the discriminatory actions of the Mayor and commissioners as having "a chilling effect" on the rights of free speech.

But, with the scheduled return of Los Van Van on Sunday, it seems that the city has learned its lesson. There are no reports of opposition from the city. Unfortunately, some of the same local organizations that protested in 1999 have not changed much.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Lies Upon Lies

Not that long ago I came to the conclusion that the local media in Miami functions as a sophisticated propaganda system that mainly depicts the Cuban government (and sometimes its people) as pariahs. While these broadcasts generally express support for U.S. policy toward Cuba, they mostly serve the local political agenda directed by influential hard-liners in Miami. The history of this agenda in Miami is rooted in the ideological (and media) battles of the Cold War and its persistence as a cultural trait in Miami deserves a post of its own.

And you may wonder how this hard-line ideology persists in the media. Well, first it is rooted in Cuban exile politics that for decades has presented the Cuban government as a totally immoral manifestation (which also infects all that associate with it), and the reliance on culturally imposed prejudice about Cuba which results in misinformation and lies. Lies upon lies, and misinformation upon misinformation, for years the media made sure to let its audience know that the Cuban government was the bad guy. And, like Cuba, the government of Venezuela and its President, Hugo Chavez, have become the new pariahs in the eyes of the local media. And, a recent story proves how bias in the media manifests itself.

On January 20th, many news outlets around the world were reporting that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the United States military caused the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti. Despite the absence of evidence that Pres. Chavez made these comments, this did not stop the media from perpetuating this lie. Why? Because of media propaganda that feeds upon its own lies and misinformation, all rooted in culturally imposed prejudice.

Here's what really happened.

- On the 19th of January, Spain's ABC Newspaper published a report headlined: "Chavez accuses the U.S. of provoking Haiti earthquake." The misinformation spread quickly in Spain, and across Latin America from Peru to Columbia. And, of course, Radio Mambi couldn't help itself either. In the afternoon, Armando Perez-Roura relished reporting this absurd account, showing his radio audience that Pres. Chavez finally went mad.

- The next day, Russian television picked it up and posted it on YouTube, spreading wildly as video. Soon, American political websites like, Fox News, and Prison Planet picked up the story and ran with it. (Guess what they have in common.)

- Even the Miami Herald's Cuban Colada blog, after investigating the rumor, came to the wrong conclusion that Pres. Chavez did make these comments. The Cuban Triangle blog also blamed Pres. Chavez.

- If any of the above had considered how absurd these comments were, and suspended their prejudices for a moment, they might have presented real facts for their readers. Just like the Anchorage Daily News did for their readers, with a little commonsense.

You see, if Renato Perez Pizarro DID read the Russian articles that he links to in his Cuban Colada post, he might have found the right answer: Hugo Chavez never made comments that the U.S. military caused the Haiti earthquake, instead the comments come from a Russian website "which clearly gives conspiracy fabrications."

Suspicions should have been immediate because the first ABC article from Spain on the 19th sourced their information to an internet article that was immediately taken down. Other reports should have led readers to the original story that was posted in Spanish on the 16th of January on some blog which suspiciously sources to an agency called "Panorama Alternativo." (This Spanish article eventually made it to a Venezuelan socialist website.) It was on the 16th that the original fabricated Russian report was posted on the internet. That Russian website I found thanks to the links on the Cuban Colada post, but Perez Pizarro for some strange reason came to another conclusion.

Must be that media bias going around.

Unsung Heroes in Haiti

News stories about Cuban doctors in Haiti have finally found their way into the mainstream. Yesterday, a report from NPR called them the "unsung heroes" inside Haiti, while El Nuevo Herald on Saturday published a brief report by Juan Carlos Chavez on the Cuban doctors inside La Renaissance Clinic in Port-au-Prince. The Herald report also includes a wonderful collection of photos by award-winning photojournalist Roberto Koltun.

The NPR report by John Burnett describes the difficult work that Cuban doctors have been dealing with constantly in Haiti since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake of January 12th. Today, the Cuban Medical Brigade has expanded to four clinics in the cities around Port-au-Prince, and receive two flights daily from Cuba with food and medical supplies.

On Sunday, Mirta Roses, the director of the Pan American Health Organization visited Cuban doctors working inside La Paz University Hospital in Port-au-Prince. She praised the outstanding work of the Cuban Medical Brigade. Among those who also toured the hospital yesterday was Haiti's Health Minister Alex Larsen, who had more words of appreciation for the Cuban doctors and the Cuban government, which he described as Haiti's principle partner in providing health services.

"We cannot repay everything you have done for us now, but we say that we carry you in our hearts. We thank the government and people of the Republic of Cuba for everything they have done. We say: Viva Cuba. Viva Haiti. And, Viva Castro."

Alex Larsen was interviewed in a television report from Cuba which can be viewed below (in Spanish). Additional information and links about Cuban doctors in Haiti can be found on the Cuban Triangle blog, here and here. And the Cuban Colada blog here.

[BBC Special Reports from Haiti]

[Photo by El Nuevo Herald/Roberto Koltun, Cuban doctor, Frank Diaz, holds a four-year old patient with a recently amputated left leg.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

"A Sense of Common Humanity" (Part 2)

Cooperation between Cuba and the U.S. has taken a step forward.

White House spokesman Tommy Veitor said yesterday: "We have coordinated with the Cuban government for authorization to fly medical evacuation flights from the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay to Miami, through Cuban airspace, cutting 90 minutes off one-way flight time."

According to the New York Times, this was a U.S. request from a Guantanamo Base commander to the Cuban military. Occasional military communication between the two nations are the closest thing to diplomacy we have.

Cooperation and coordination between the two nations will only help the whole relief effort. Currently, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is receiving supplies and equipment for navy ships currently entering Haiti.

In the meantime, a report on the Cuban medical unit inside Haiti has emerged. According to this television report [in Spanish, video below], Cuban doctors have constructed a field hospital outside their home in Port-au-Prince.

One doctor, Rafael Reyes says that they had no other choice because most of the hospitals around the capital are closed or destroyed.

An additional emergency room of Cuban doctors has been opened at an ophthalmology center in Port-au-Prince, which before headquartered the Miracle Mission project, a Cuba-Venezuela initiative providing free eye surgery for the poor.

Inside the center, Dr. Frank Diaz, an orthopedic surgeon, reports that 90% of the injuries arriving are open fractures that require immediate attention. Dr. Diaz also mentions his experience operating in Peru during the aftermath of their earthquakes, but highlights that the injuries in Haiti have been much more severe.

[Photo by Reuters, Sea Hawk helicopters to embark aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson en route to Haiti.]

[BBC Special Reports from Haiti]
[Dr. Paul Farmer on Cuban doctors in Haiti]
[What You Can Do To Help Haiti]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"A Sense of Common Humanity" (Part 1)

The horrible destruction from Tuesday's 7.0 earthquake has killed an estimated 50,000 Haitians and may potentially bring additional suffering for millions of Haitians now lacking access to water, food, shelter, and health services. It's most vulnerable of course being the children. Countries from all over the world have now been provoked to send immediate aid.

But, ironically, before the recent earthquake and the devastating hurricanes of 2008 (which caused about $1 billion in damage), Haitians had already been living in dire predicaments.

Health data collected around 1999 and 2000 by the World Health Organization describe a country where a significant number (12%) of children under 4 would die from diarrheal diseases likely caused by a lack of clean drinking water. (The child mortality rate still stands around 80 per 1000 live births.) For adults and adolescents, AIDS was the leading cause of deaths. This was followed by intestinal infections as the second leading cause, most likely associated with the level of sanitation and access to clean drinking water.

Currently, it is reported that only half of all Haitians have access to clean drinking water, and 19% have decent sanitation.

On the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy/education, and purchasing power and income, Haitians find their "well-being" on par with citizens living in war-torn nations like Sudan and Timor-Leste.

Yet, despite those grave conditions, humanitarian aid for infrastructure only trickled into Haiti. Not even former President Bill Clinton, as a newly appointed UN special envoy to Haiti, could help collect a total of $270 million in internationally committed aid to Haiti. By September of last year only a pitiful $21 million had been delivered.

So, when we talk about helping Haiti, it should be noted that it is very strange to hear calls for "a sense of common humanity," especially when such common humanity for Haiti seemed absent for so many years.

But, it is never too late to help. And with relief aid pouring into Haiti from nations around the world, one should assume that this common humanity also means cooperation among the donor nations. Unless, of course, you are from the Heritage Foundation.

Cuba experts such as Julia Sweig and Steve Clemons have recently proposed the idea that cooperation in U.S. and Cuban relief efforts inside Haiti can provide an opportunity to improve relations. Clemon's proposal sees a broader regional effort where cooperation among Latin American nations, including Cuba, could perhaps improve relations and bring about positive long-term outcomes.

But, the Heritage Foundation, which takes a hard-line stance against Cuba, sees only a restricted form of cooperation. Aside from recommending the Obama administration take advantage of the current crisis to initiate a long-term "reform program" and build a "stronger democracy" inside Haiti, Heritage advises the U.S. to ignore cooperation relief efforts with Cuba. Instead, we should be cautious of Cuba.

"Cuban medical personnel and Venezuelan cash and assistance teams will arrive in Haiti, and there is certainly bound to be tension and jockeying for credit and media attention. In this tragedy, one would hope a sense of common humanity prevails. But the Castros and Chávezes of this world do not play that way."

Heritage has a very strange sense of "common humanity." Anyway, Heritage recommends the Obama administration to instead cooperate with "friendlier nations" and create "
a strong and vigorous public diplomacy effort to counter negative propaganda emanating from the Castro-Chávez camp."

Boy, the Heritage Foundation sounds really worried about propaganda from the "Castro-Chavez camp." It'll be interesting to see in the following days what Heritage is so fearful of.

In the meantime, it is being reported that Cuba already has a medical unit inside Haiti attending to hundreds of the injured and performing surgeries. They are expecting to build three field hospitals soon.

For years, at least since 1998, Cuba has provided humanitarian aid to Haiti in the form of Cuban doctors and scholarships for Haitian students to receive medical training. Cuba has since maintained a medical unit inside Haiti of over 300 doctors and providing health care for millions. At a 2004 UN press conference, a Cuban spokesperson reported that the Cuban medical team inside Haiti had treated "nearly 5 million Haitians."

[BBC Special Reports from Haiti]
[Dr. Paul Farmer on Cuban doctors in Haiti]
[Medical experts on Haiti's Aftermath]
[What You Can Do To Help Haiti]

[Photo my Gideon Mendel]