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.

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