Call it the Fracas in Caracas -- a sparring match between two heavyweights, a politician and a pop singer. This week, the heated ideological showdown between Spanish superstar Alejandro Sanz and the combative president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, escalated into a full-fledged battle over free speech.
The long-simmering dispute between the romantic warbler and the socialist head of state boiled over this month after Sanz accused the Chavez government of sabotaging -- for the second time in three months -- a scheduled concert in the Venezuelan capital. Soon, a petition in support of the singer was circulating on the Internet, signed by 160 artists, including such big names as Shakira, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, along with actress Penelope Cruz and soccer star David Beckham.
The latest round came Thursday when the president scoffed at the allegations during a news conference and invited Sanz to perform in Caracas as proof that his government supported artistic expression. Chavez also invited one of Sanz's defenders, Argentine rocker Fito Paez, to "bring his guitar" after Paez, who's scheduled to perform in Caracas in May, blasted Chavez for not tolerating dissent and called the Sanz affair "just one more sign of the arrogance and brutality" of the Venezuelan leader.
"Let me be the first to invite any one of you to come to my country to sing," Chavez said, adding that he had never heard the work of either artist. "We are pushing a great cultural initiative, so long live the song and the free exchange of ideas."
The singer says no, gracias. Sanz dismissed the invitation as a request for a command performance at the presidential palace, which it wasn't. "The thing is, I don't want to go sing for Mr. Hugo Chavez," Sanz told me Thursday in an interview from Miami. "I want to sing for the people of Venezuela."
Forgive me for not sharing the selective outrage of the artists who signed the Sanz statement, including one of my heroes, singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, victim of his own repression under the Franco dictatorship in Spain. Where were all these artists when the Bush administration, for purely political reasons, repeatedly prevented Cuban and other artists from entering the U.S. and performing here?
The Sanz defenders include Miami power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who were among the outspoken opponents of allowing fellow Cuban artists from the island to attend the Latin Grammys in the past, saying it would offer aid and comfort to Fidel Castro. The anti-Castro hard-liners, you'll recall, prompted the Latin Recording Academy to move the inaugural award ceremony in 2000 from Miami to Los Angeles. The defense of artistic freedom should not depend on your politics.
To his credit, Sanz says he spoke out against the attempt to ban Cubans from the Latin Grammys, even though he lives in Miami, where opposing the anti-Castro lobby can be quite unpopular, if not dangerous. But the singer got a tad testy when I suggested there was a double standard at work in his favor.
"In any case, wherever it may be," Sanz retorted in his impassioned Spanish, "to me it seems terrible for a person to be prevented from moving freely around the world."
Sanz, 39, is the last artist you'd expect to take up a political cause so publicly. The singer-songwriter is best known for his romantic, flamenco-tinged music that has earned him a record 15 Latin Grammy Awards and two regular Grammys, including the latest this month in the Latin-pop category for "El Tren De Los Momentos," an album reflecting the anguish of his divorce.
His problems in Venezuela date to statements he made in 2004 during a tour stop in Caracas. At the time, he was asked by reporters about a petition organized by Chavez opponents and signed by 3 million people demanding a referendum on his leadership, which Chavez at first resisted. (He later relented and won the vote.) Sanz expressed his dislike for the leader, whom he regards as a dictator and a foe of free speech, and declared that "if I were presented with 3 million signatures to stop me from singing, I'd stop singing."
The government retaliated by setting up a website to collect 3 million signatures to see whether the artist would do what he promised -- stop singing. But it wasn't all a joke. The campaign included "all sorts of insults and threats of all kinds," Sanz says.
After Sanz's 2004 remarks, his crew was detained at the Caracas airport and "searched down to their last nut and bolt." And more recently, tour promoters were unable to book hotel rooms for Sanz's entourage because, the singer says, the government pressured hotels to yank the welcome mat.
The controversy forced the cancellation of a sold-out Sanz concert in November at the Poliedro. The government, which manages the stadium, refused to let Sanz "come to Venezuela and use a public venue to bad-mouth the country and its leaders," in the words of the education minister.
Sanz didn't help matters the following month during his concert in Miami when he wrapped himself in a Venezuelan flag, then gleefully held up a fan's T-shirt for all to see the undiplomatic slogan about Chavez printed on the back. slogan
The incident was broadcast on YouTube and inflamed his enemies in Venezuela. Last month, some municipal officials in Caracas declared the singer persona non grata in their country, or at least in their district. Finally, a makeup concert scheduled for Feb. 14 was also canceled by the promoters, Evenpro, citing unfavorable conditions.
Although Sanz blasts Chavez for silencing his critics through control of the media, the fight has been reported blow by blow in the Caracas newspaper, www.el-nacional.com%26q=%22alejandro+sanz%22%26sitesearch=www.el-naci onal.com%26client=pub-9458451882309698%26forid=1%26channel=2591233052 %26ie=ISO-8859-1%26oe=ISO-8859-1%26cof=GALT%3A%23428AAB%3BGL%3A1%3BDI V%3A%23336699%3BVLC%3A2F6278%3BAH%3Acenter%3BBGC%3AFFFFFF%3BLBGC%3A33 6699%3BALC%3ABB9A61%3BLC%3ABB9A61%3BT%3A868686%3BGFNT%3A428AAB%3BGIMP %3A428AAB%3BFORID%3A11%26hl=es ">El Nacional . But Chavez is not averse to intimidation. Check out the glum faces of people at the news conference this week while the president, wearing what appears to be a green military shirt, cracks jokes about the situation. "The only singer I listen to is myself and I sing very badly," Chavez chuckles.
Nobody else is laughing. People claim "that I banned him from singing here," the president continues. "No, Mr. Sanz. If you like, you can come here to sing in [the district of] Miraflores. I'll lend you the Bicentennial Plaza for you to sing and say whatever you want."
Sanz said Thursday that he planned to hold el presidente to his word. "I plan to take him up on that invitation for my next tour to Venezuela, but he must ensure the safety of my crew, myself and my fans," he said.
"I don't plan to stop until I can play in Venezuela and until people can say what they think, with nobody sent to silence them."