Public Media Arts Hub

Cuban musicians struggle to reach American audiences amid shifting diplomatic relations


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: The on-again/off-again diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba have made it much harder for Cuban musicians to travel to the U.S. for this summer's music festivals.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre from Havana for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mike Cerre: Since the broad-based success of the 1999 Buena Vista Social Club film and album celebrating Cuban musicians, there has been a succession of virtuoso Cuban musicians, like Roberto Fonseca, who have regularly played major music festivals and venues throughout the U.S.

Roberto Fonseca, Musician: United States is a great and important platform for young musicians.

Mike Cerre: But changes in U.S. visa procedures are making it more difficult for this current generation of Cuban musicians, like Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros and his wife, Tania Haase Solorzano. They have spent much of the past year trying to get visas to play at festivals and schools in the United States they have been invited to.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros, Musician: No, we don't have a guarantee, and we are trying to, but, yes, it's hard to process.

Mike Cerre: Like most Cuban jazz musicians, Rodrigo and Tania are classically trained graduates of Cuba's national music schools they attended from elementary school through college.

They have spent the majority of their lives preparing for professional music careers and joining the ranks of Cuba's world-class musicians.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: Eight years or 10, we start in the school, like a career. At that age, you are not thinking in a career. But we had that...

Tania Haase Solorzano, Musician: Opportunity.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: Yes, opportunity, but, also, it's like a responsibility.

Mike Cerre: During the last week of the Trump administration in 2020, the U.S. shut down its embassy in Havana, accusing Cuba of state-supported terrorism.

Since then, most Cuban musicians now have to travel to a third country with a U.S. embassy just to apply for a visa.

Bill Martinez, Immigration Attorney: It's devastating, emotionally and otherwise. It's -- the toll is at so many levels.

Mike Cerre: Immigration attorney Bill Martinez helped get the original Buena Vista Social Club musicians into the U.S. for their celebrated Carnegie Hall debut in 1998. He continues helping them and other Cuban musicians work through their visa application nightmares.

Bill Martinez: The big change is that administrative processing, which happens after the consular interviews, is causing long delays and sometimes resulting in the cancellation of tours.

Mike Cerre: And is it predictable? Do you know, when you apply for a visa, how long it's going to take?

Bill Martinez: You can never know. It's absolutely unpredictable.

Mike Cerre: At this year's annual Havana International Jazz Festival held every January for showcasing Cuban and other international artists, American music promoters were struggling to book Cuban performers for their upcoming festivals due to visa issues.

Kevin Ball, Festival Booker: You have to have the visa in order to get the booking. When they get the booking, you have to -- it's kind of like a double-edge sword, right? It's like, what came first, the chicken or the egg?

Mike Cerre: Kevin Ball and Lonnie Smith (ph) represent jazz festivals in North Carolina and Texas.

Rodrigo's uncle and teacher, pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan, started playing major summer music festivals like this one in Napa Valley in 2017 after the Obama administration started normalizing relations and travel protocols with Cuba. But most of them were reversed by his successor, and the Biden administration has done little to lift the new restrictions during an election year.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: If you are coming tomorrow and you tell me, can you be in San Francisco next week to work, of course not.


Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: We have to do it with a lot of time.

Mike Cerre: While they waited indefinitely for their visas, American audiences could only see them perform in Old Havana's tourist restaurants, which have also been impacted by the added U.S. restrictions on Americans and foreigners traveling to Cuba.

Their band is paid in cash and in meals, which have become even more valuable this year due to the government's latest round of food price hikes and rationing.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: We know a lot of cases of musicians going out of the country, not because they don't want to be here. Because it's pretty hard to get a job.

Mike Cerre: Most of the cast for last year's off-Broadway musical revival of the Buena Vista Social Club film were Cuban musicians who had previously left their country for professional reasons.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, nearly a half-a-million Cubans are believed to have migrated to the U.S. in just the last two years due to their declining economy.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: Our proposal at this moment is to live here in Cuba and to go and just return at the end. I think that's about love to the family, to our home, and also to our country.

Mike Cerre: As headliners at this year's Havana International Jazz Festival, Rodrigo's mother and Tania's extended music families joined them on stage to honor Cuba's rich musical history and culture they are dedicated to preserving.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: This concert is about the history of the country, talking about loss, how we suffer sometimes with immigration. It's a place to be happy and also to cry together.

Tania Haase Solorzano: We are always hoping that it will be better for all of us.

Rodrigo Garcia Ameneiros: Yes. I mean, think, I think that the restrictions are just stopping the interchange between one and the other people. A lot of culture is being stopped.

Mike Cerre: After intensive lobbying by festival promoters and government officials on both sides of the process, Rodrigo and Tania received educational and cultural visas to salvage some of their American invitations, as long as they don't get paid to perform in the U.S.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in Havana, Cuba.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.