MIAMI — One by one, musicians from the renowned Cuban salsa band Los Van Van made their way past immigration officials at Miami International Airport and into the bright lights and cameras of the Spanish-language media.
One reporter offered them Cuban pastries. Maintenance workers took pictures with their cell phones. One said she had grown up dancing to Los Van Van. Another denounced them as tools of the island's communist government. When they last played Miami 10 years ago, a mini-riot broke out between fans and protesters.
“I didn't come to do anything political,” bassist Juan Formell said. “We came to play music.”
Los Van Van is the latest in a string of Cuban bands to visit the United States under the Obama administration — and the most controversial. Many characterize the group as having a cozy relationship with the Castro government.
Aside from Los Van Van, La Charanga Habanera and Buena Fe each made appearances to sold-out crowds in Miami. The Septeto Nacional visited in November. Folk singer Carlos Varela met with politicians and sang in Washington. Omara Portuondo is scheduled to perform here in March.
Figures from the State Department show the number of visas issued to Cuban artists and athletes has inched up slightly since plummeting under the Bush administration. In the 2001 fiscal year, 860 such visas were granted; four years later, that number had dropped to 16. Last year, artist and athlete visas rose from 41 to 57.
“I think under Obama, we've seen that reversed a little bit,” said Sujatha Fernandes, an assistant sociology professor at Queens College in New York City and author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. “There's nothing formally written. But we've begun to see groups slowly being allowed to enter the country.”
As Los Van Van arrived in South Florida, signs of a changing Cuban-American community could be seen.
In late 1999, the band's performance was greeted by a protest more than 4,000 strong. Some threw garbage at concertgoers. A reporter was injured. People were led away in handcuffs.
The lead up to the recent concert in Miami was markedly different.
A billboard alongside one of the city's major highways pictured Los Van Van playing on stage. Los Van Van's songs blending Cuban jazz and pop were played on Cuban-American radio — an act hardly imaginable a few short years ago.
And while a crowd of protestors did gather outside the concert, they were far outnumbered by those going to listen to the music. No items were thrown. No one was arrested.
For Cubans who grew up on the island, Los Van Van's music, with lyrics on everything from love to identity, represents the songs of their youth.
“They still want to be connected to their homeland,” Hugo Cancio, president of Fuego Entertainment, a Miami production company, said of Cubans who have immigrated here over the last 15 years.
For more conservative exiles, Los Van Van are another extension of the Castro regime.
“Inviting 'Van Van' at this time is as though the U.S. would have authorized spokesmen for the South African apartheid regime to come to the United States to perform during the final stages of apartheid's grotesque existence,” said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami.
Formell, Los Van Van's bassist, has often been quoted in Cuba's official press, including in August, 2006, when Fidel Castro became gravely ill and transferred power to his brother, Raul. Formell wished “brother Fidel” a swift recovery and said it was a delicate moment, and necessary to prepare against the enemy.
Los Van Van is widely considered the most significant salsa band to emerge from Cuba over the last four decades.
“I would say virtually every timba group owes an inspiration debt to Los Van Van,” said Chris Johnson, a producer for radio station KXLU, home of the long-standing Latin music program Alma del Barrio in Los Angeles.
Ninety miles across the Florida Straits, music hasn't escaped the throes of politics, either.
Cuban-American radio stations have avoided playing music from groups from the island in the past, but that has begun to change. About six months ago, Al Fuentes, programming director for Spanish Broadcasting Systems in Miami, began playing songs from Los Van Van and other Cuban artists on his morning show. He said the decision grew from demand for the music — and his own curiosity about music made after 1959.
“People have been scared to offend parents, like my father,” Fuentes said. “I think we need to realize there is a new generation that grew up in Cuba with that music, and the people that are here now make the decision.”