Amid Protest, Cuban Group Plays Miami


Apparently unfazed by protesters and protected by a cordon of police in riot gear, more than 2,000 people turned out Saturday to dance for almost three hours at the first concert ever staged in Miami by one of Cuba’s most popular and venerable bands.

The controversial appearance here by Los Van Van was seen by many as a test of this city’s fragile and often unique definition of cultural freedom.

Those who paid up to $50 a ticket to hear the nonstop music had to pass through metal detectors after first undergoing a torrent of verbal abuse from a crowd of angry Cuban exiles who viewed members of the band not just as musicians but as ambassadors for Fidel Castro.

“It looks like an armed camp, but they weren’t able to stop it,” said Max Castro, a University of Miami sociologist who was in the audience.

Small skirmishes broke out between police and demonstrators, who broke through police lines to dash up the steep steps of the arena while waving large Cuban flags. Police used pepper spray on some demonstrators, and several people were arrested. A news reporter was treated at the scene after being hit with a rock thrown from the crowd.


“It went on, so that means it was a success,” said Debbie Ohanian, a Miami Beach club owner who promoted the show and has been castigated for weeks on Spanish-language radio by hard-line anti-Castro exiles.

Many of those in the audience were young Cubans, some who have arrived here in the last 10 years and have seen Los Van Van perform in Cuba. “They just keep getting better and better,” said one woman who left the island nine years ago.

But others in the audience were there to make a statement. “I had never even heard of Los Van Van before this came up,” said Dolly Katz, a Miami physician. “But I think it’s ridiculous that people would interfere with someone’s right to hear music.”

Los Van Van’s Miami stop marks the end of a 28-city tour, which included dates last month at the Monterey Jazz Festival and a concert at Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. No political dissonance was heard at those or other engagements around the country.

But in Miami, everything regarding Cuba is political and potentially divisive, and the news that Cuba’s best-known party band finally was booked to play here set off an immediate furor.

Ohanian said she only wanted to stage a concert. And, she said, other musicians from the island, including Carlos Varela, Orlando “Maraca” Valle, and NG La Banda, have recently played here without incident.

But Los Van Van was different, charged hard-line exiles who oppose anything that they say lends legitimacy or financial support to the Castro government. Founded in 1969 by Juan Formell, Los Van Van takes its name from a revolutionary slogan. The 15-piece band, masters of the upbeat Cuban fusion they call songo, is an institution on the island and hugely popular.

While the group is loyal to the Communist regime, its songs are filled with wry humor, sly metaphors and social commentary, which often can be interpreted as critical of the Cuban system.

But the band’s longevity during three of Castro’s four decades of rule apparently makes them suspect in the eyes of many exiles.

“There are more here that love us than don’t,” said Formell between songs.

For weeks, commentators on Spanish-language radio have railed against the concert. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo called Ohanian “Havana Debbie,” adding, “This is about trying to cause problems in Miami and make Uncle Fidel happy.”

Right-wing exile groups, including veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, announced plans to hold a rival event, starting earlier in the evening, and then bus attendees across town to join a massive demonstration outside the concert hall.

Expecting trouble, the Miami police assigned extra officers to duty and designated two areas outside the Miami Arena where protesters could gather. Barricades were to keep the demonstrators and concert-goers apart.

In addition to Miami police, and some FBI agents who were to be on duty, Ohanian said she spent $27,000 for private security.