How Miami Light Project went up against Cubanitos and won

Cuban artists began coming to the US long before President Obama declared a rapprochement. They criss-crossed the country, performing freely in nearly every major city — except in Miami, where arts organizations receiving local government funds were banned from bringing Cuban artists and performers to the city. Beth Boone, the artistic and executive director of Miami Light Project, thought that was absurd. She led the arts and culture organization on a crusade to lift the unofficial embargo on Cuban artists, joining the ACLU and several other local leaders in the arts community in a lawsuit against the county.  Editor’s note: This paragraph has been edited to clarify the nature of the policy and the scope of the lawsuit. 

This Saturday, the Miami Light Project celebrates that history at their annual fundraising dinner by bringing back transcendent Cuban jazz singer Dayme Arocena, who just performed in March. (You can still buy tickets.)

The New Tropic sat down with Boone to discuss the Light Project’s revolutionary legal battle against local government, the wave of American tourists flooding the island, and the future of exchange with Miami’s southern neighbor.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Why did you first decide to open cultural exchange with Cuba?

That’s been my life’s work for the last 16 years. I moved to Miami in 1994 and Cuban culture obviously has a big part to play in the history and development of Miami. So, as a new Miamian, I was bathed in that.

I present contemporary culture, so I was always looking at artists from all over the world, which of course includes Cuba. So way back in 1996 I remember getting some notices from a management company letting me know that there was going to be a tour of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. They’re one of the most important cultural groups from Cuba. They were coming to the US to tour during the Clinton administration. I was totally interested.

If I’m doing my job right, I’m putting artists on stage that represent our whole community. It’s an awesome job. So they were going to go all over the US, cultural exchange visas were being issued to artists in Cuba but there was a spoken and unspoken forbiddenness to that happening in Miami. The reason is because there was an ordinance at the time. It was an anti-Cuba ordinance, and it was put into place after the Brothers to the Rescue airplane was shot down at the Florida Straits. It was horrible, people died. The Miami Dade commission, within minutes, put an ordinance in place. But their way of responding to being upset was to put local foreign policy in place. There’s no such thing as local foreign policy. We felt it was a first amendment violation.

Prior to our ability to freely bring Cuban artists to Miami, my colleagues around the country were already doing it. That’s what made it all the more egregious. We’re 40 minutes away, they’re going to land here and not do anything here? Maybe they’ll stay and see family here and then they’re going to go to another city and perform. So, Miami is going to miss out on that cultural experience because you don’t like Fidel, really? It’s absurd.

Since we get grants from the county that means we do business with the county, so were we to have brought Cuban artists, according to that ordinance, we would have lost all of our funding. It was egregious. So the ACLU approached us about suing Miami-Dade county to abolish the ordinance. So we did. We went to court and we won, and the ordinance was abolished. This was in [2000]. Editor’s note: This sentence was edited to correctly reflect the year of the lawsuit. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 asserting that only the federal government can dictate foreign policy forced Miami-Dade County to abandon its ban on Cuban artists and performers — still a victory for those involved in the ACLU suit, but not as a direct result of their lawsuit.

That’s a watershed year. That is a rubber to the road moment for an organization. It also meant that moving forward, we needed to put our money where our mouth was, in regards to fighting to make sure that cultural exchange was robust.

So, it was about not letting a vocal minority rule the day. I have always believed that although Miami has a reputation historically of being entirely intolerant of engaging with Cuba, I am 100% certain that is a very vocal, very powerful, very small minority.

How has this cultural exchange grown in the last 16 years? How has it affected Miami’s art community?

I went for the first time in December 2000. On that trip, I made a lot of really great friendships. Some were official, some were personal. We went to the Ministry of Culture. That’s a critical relationship. Especially at that time, people had some email, but only if you worked for the government. If you wanted to pursue artists from Cuba, you had to start communication.

So, I decided to program the first Cuban tour that I could and in 1999 I brought Grupo Vocal Desandann. I’m friends with them to this day. This was huge for us, because this was our  assertion that we are here and we will be doing exchange with Cuba, and this is about art and culture not politics. This was our establishment of that.

Grupo Vocal Desandann are from Camagüey, Cuba. Camagüey has a very strong Haitian influence and this group are descendants of Haitian slaves who were brought to Cuba. Their songs are representative of that, they sing in Creole and Spanish. I thought that would be a great group to start with. They’re beloved and well-known among Haitian and Cuban communities, but they were virtually unknown to the Cuban–Americans here. We worked very closely with Jan Mapou and he connected us with everyone in the Haitian community. We did three concerts in three days in three different venues. We did our first concert at Miami Beach at the Colony Theater, where we historically represented all of our work, it was sold out. Then we went to Coral Gables Community Church, they loved it. And then we landed in Barry University, which is right in North Miami, by Little Haiti. Over 1,500 people saw this concert. And I think that people who were initially leery felt that we did it with total respect.

What role does art play in bridging political difference?

Art is political. Great artists are political, they have opinions, they’re political, in many cultures, societies, artists get their heads chopped off if they’re saying something people don’t want to hear. So, there’s no way we can pretend unless it’s sugar pop culture. Artists are making statements about the world constantly, not just in Cuba, everywhere.

Art is protest. Everywhere. Artists have an opinion, they’re reflecting the world around them. I think you can use cultural exchange opportunities to find ways of bridging gaps that exist because of political difference. So understandably there’s a whole group of people here who feel devastated and not anywhere near over what happened in 1959, and understandably so– families were destroyed, properties were lost, businesses were ended, all of those things are true. But isolating ourselves from that country has done nothing to repair the damage. I think that like clergy and like educators, artists are people who are probably best suited and born for stimulating dialogue. So that’s what we’re trying to do. Wouldn’t the world be awful if we all shared the same view? I think the artist’s role in society is to help us to look at differences and walk into territory that feels uncomfortable and in the best case scenario learn something and then finally move away transformed. That makes me cry.

Who did you work with to start this exchange?

I stand on the shoulders of many people who have been doing it much longer and who had a lot more to lose than I did. It has been hard work and I’ve taken some risks, but I didn’t risk my life, nor my stature in the community by doing the work that I did, because I’m not Cuban. I have friends and colleagues who are Cuban and Cuban American for whom the stakes were much higher to do this work. Silvia Wilhelm being one of them. She was born and raised in Cuba, came over in Pedro Pan and was separated from her family at age 12. Silvia has dedicated her entire life to reunifying the two countries and create good relations. She did not come over and become embittered and paralyzed and myopic. Someone like Silvia put her life at risk.

What President Obama did on December 17, 2014, and all of the things that have unfolded since, I can say to you, with complete pride, confidence and knowledge, that our work contributed to that. He doesn’t know who I am, he doesn’t know what I’m doing. But he knows Silvia. She was called to the White House to advise him on his trip, so maybe his researchers did talk about our work.

In the end, what’s important is that the change was made. What’s important is that somebody had the cojones to stand up and say we’re trying something different. It’s difficult that that hurts some people. I don’t want people to be hurt. But change hurts. Change is hard.

What do you think about the wave of American tourism to Cuba?

Now, it’s a dime a dozen people are descending upon Cuba. But I just started to observe in the last year that everyone and their brother is going to Cuba. It’s one thing to be able to go, get your visa, pass customs, but now what? Where’s the real cultural exchange happening? You get your hotel booked, and you arrive there and you have cultural exchange? No, that’s called tourism. If you want to have authentic cultural exchange happening, you need to have relationships with people. I’m here to tell you that Carnival Cruise Lines does not have the relationships that I’ve built in the last 16 years. That’s where real diplomacy happens, where real cultural exchange happens. Change is in trusting relationships, those don’t happen overnight.

I know a lot of people are going and having experiences where they’re going to the Tropicana or having a mojito and they call that cultural exchange. It’s annoying. It’s insulting, because it’s not real. So I thought, this year, we should celebrate Cuba at our dinner. We should celebrate our relationship with Cuba, and the hard work we’ve done with Cuban artists. We should invite a Cuban artist back to sing and we should celebrate Silvia Wilhelm who is on our board.

Dayme Arocena March 2016 from TheNewTropic on Vimeo.

How do you think the improving relationship between Cuba and the US will affect the future of the Light Project’s cultural exchange?

We’re continuing a robust exchange relationship with Cuba but we’re going deeper. What we’re trying to do now is connecting artists here in Miami with artists who are there in Havana and having them create work together and present both in Miami and Havana. So it’s a level deeper.

How will that help the relationship Miamians have with Cuba?

I think the more people are figuratively talking to each other and talking and interacting with each other, the more they get to know each other. And the more you know that which you did not know before, the less you fear it.