The notion that divisions between the United States and Cuba could be healed through "cultural exchanges" -- like what the Florida Orchestra is planning -- is appealing in its idealism and simplicity. After all, just because governments in Washington and Havana don't get along, doesn't mean Americans and Cubans can't be friends. And if that happens, imagine the possibilities.
I have a family member who has participated in something similar, including during two trips back to the island of his birth, and I believe that he believes in his heart and in his art that he has helped close the gap between Americans and Cubans. Maybe he has and that would be a good thing, but that's not the point.
The problem with "cultural exchanges" is that they are not grounded in the reality of art in Cuba or the U.S.-Cuban conflict.
First of all, any "cultural exchange" between the United States and Cuba are rarely an equal trade. The Castro dictatorship has never allowed Cuban American artists like Willy Chirino, Arturo Sandoval or the Estefans to perform on the island, while Cubans allowed to leave Cuba to perform are as much, if not more, representatives of the regime as they are musicians or actors. They serve not "art" but the propaganda aims of their patrons.
Through the arts, like through the military or the media, is another way the Castro dictatorship has kept its power for more than 52 years. As a musician or actor, you either adhere to and prosleytize the party line or you have nothing. Independent artists, like Sandoval or Paquito D'Rivera, have already fled the island or have been repressed into oblivion.
More significant to the question of art as healer is that the U.S.-Cuba divide has nothing to do with differences in musical or other artistic tastes or experiences. It is all about the threat Cuba has posed to the United States, i.e., the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Castros' support of international terrorism, and the continuing danger the communist dictatorship, which has never met a repressive tactic it hasn't tried, poses for the Cuban people.
In Cuba, the Florida Orchestra will be playing for a regime that has imprisoned thousands of artists. Unfortunately, the irony is lost on those pimping the orchestra's upcoming junket.
"I think of this exchange as the laying down of another brick on the bridge that is rebuilding," said Tampa businessman Jose Valiente, who was born on the island. "Cuba and the U.S. will soon be friends. It's not if; it's when."
That's what we all want, but anyone cognizant of the reality of that relationship understands that won't happen until the root cause of the split, the Castro brothers and their dictatorship, is resolved.
Song and dance may entertain, and provide the Florida Orchestra and its entourage with a vacation in an "exotic" land. To expect anything more, to think a few concerts will solve all that ails the U.S.-Cuba dynamic, is to be distracted -- and that is what the Castros want -- from the real challenge at hand.