The Cuban dance band Los Van Van is so beloved at home that 100 years from now, goes a local joke, Fidel Castro will be known as a failed dictator who ruled in the age of Los Van Van. But until recently, the legendary salsa troupe, whose virile and eclectic rhythms have influenced Latin music for three decades, was not much more familiar to most Americans than the rich puff of a Cohiba cigar.
Then, last fall, Miami officials tried to block Los Van Van's debut performance in that city, citing a local ban on business with Cuban nationals. When the officials finally relented and let the show go on, thousands of Cuban exiles screamed, spit and hurled eggs and D batteries at arriving audience members. After the band won a Grammy last month, the first ever by a Cuban salsa group, it slyly thanked Miami for generating so much U.S. publicity for its music. Still, because of Miami's so-called Cuba ordinance--a 1996 measure that can deny public funds, sites and permits to cultural events that include Cubans--members of Los Van Van are among very few Cuban artists who have been able to crash the city's cold war fiesta. This remains true even though new federal rules encourage cultural exchanges with the communist island.
Local bans on commerce with repressive foreign regimes aren't unusual in the U.S. But First Amendment defenders say Miami's Cuba ban, by reaching beyond business to salsa and cinema, is worrisome because it amounts to America's only real example of codified censorship. Miami arts enthusiasts, fearing reprisals, have balked at challenging the ban. But the American Civil Liberties Union and Debbie Ohanian, the concert promoter who brought Los Van Van to Miami, tell TIME that they plan to file a federal suit this week. "My family is from Armenia, which was under Soviet communism for 70 years, and yet we still allowed the Bolshoi Ballet to perform here," says Ohanian, 43. "As an American, this law offends me."
To Miami's Cuban-American leaders, welcoming Castro's artists is a worse affront. "To people who've been tortured in his jails, it's an insult to allow Cuban propaganda here," says Miami-Dade County Commissioner Pedro Reboredo.
But does most of the entertainment qualify as propaganda? Los Van Van's lyrics eschew politics. The critically acclaimed Cuban film La Vida Es Silbar (Life Is to Whistle), which was shown at a Miami film festival last month, is critical of Castro's society. (Nonetheless, Miami-Dade County has threatened to pull its $49,000 funding for the festival.) Members of the popular and apolitical Cuban music troupe Buena Vista Social Club, which recently played Carnegie Hall, were supposed to perform on Miami Beach this year but pulled out because of safety concerns.
The ordinance could cost Miami an estimated quarter-billion dollars in lost revenue over the next decade. For years, the city has groomed itself as a nexus of culture. But Miami-Dade officials pushed away this year's Latin Grammy Awards--and the projected $40 million they would mean to the local economy--because Cubans might perform. And that's a fraction of the $130 million the scuttled 2007 Pan American Games (which will include Cuban athletes) would have brought.