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Foreigners Need Not Apply

Guitar player illustration

Anyone who’s been through an airport since 9/11 can tell you how all the heightened security measures have made it more difficult, but hopefully safer, to travel by air. Travelers now must get to the airport earlier, stand in line longer and have their belongings searched much more often-but things are a whole lot more complicated for people trying to get into the U.S. to work-even for well-known artists who have been hired to perform in the U.S. (and have done so before) or have been invited to attend awards ceremonies.

For the third year in a row, Cuban musicians nominated for Grammy awards were not present at this year’s ceremony. The artists in question were pianist Chucho Valdes, singer Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club, percussionist Amadito Valdes, veteran guitarist Manuel Galban and singer Barbarito Torres. In a statement by an unnamed U.S. official in Cuba, these artists were considered “detrimental to the interest of the United States” under the jurisdiction section of 212f of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that the American president can deny U.S. entry to foreigners. In the case of the Cuban musicians, the U.S. doesn’t allow communists or employees of a communist government to enter.

While reports vary, Chucho Valdes chose not to apply because he felt that if everyone couldn’t go, then why should he-and he knew that there was no chance that all would be approved. At a news conference held in Cuba, the 77-year-old Ferrer, who did apply, said: “I am not a terrorist. I couldn’t be one. I am a musician.”

Politics are politics, and they can be played on both sides. At the same news conference Abel Acosta, the vice-minister for culture who is also head of the Cuban Music Institute, went on record saying: “How can these musicians be considered terrorists? Something as noble as music is being converted into a policy against Cuba.”

Cuban music fans who live in America will tell you that things have certainly taken a turn for the worse. Under the founding of the Department of Homeland Security and the creation of the Patriot Act, which also allows the government wide-sweeping powers to intrude upon the rights of U.S. citizens as well, the George W. Bush administration’s beefing up of security has effectively chilled relations between the U.S. and Cuba as well as several other countries. Musicians, actors, athletes and academics have been denied entry or detained. If you are a young man from a primarily Muslim country, you must undergo a three-month criminal background check.

And now for a little background: In response to 9/11, the Bush Administration created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and placed the Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services, among two dozen other governmental departments, under its jurisdiction. Reflecting the administration’s new line on foreign nationals, the DHS, through Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services, is responsible for these new security measures, overseeing security checks and authorizing work permits.

For foreign artists to get a P-2 work permit visa they must get a letter of invitation from the presenter. Then they must file a petition saying that they are unique performers of value who would add to the American cultural landscape. The P-2 application is then filled out (everyone recommends paying the $1,000 premium processing fee, which goes on top of the $130 in fees for each musician). A background check is done. Then the artists must go to a U.S. consulate for an interview. If the meeting goes well, the consulate then sends the application to the Department of Homeland Security for another background check. Whereas the whole process used to take three weeks, with a few less steps, it can now take up to six or seven months because the FBI is digging through an estimated 70,000 to 200,000 applications.

Sometimes artists must apply to get out of their own countries, which takes time as well.

To be fair, it’s not just Cubans and Muslims having problems. German classical cellist Eckart Runge of the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet was arrested for shoplifting a pair of tweezers in Aspen, Colo., when he was a teenager. While the incident was recorded in his visa file, it didn’t cause him any problems until after the Patriot Act was passed. More than 10 years after the incident, his visa application was denied by the American Embassy in Berlin. The quartet had to cancel early dates of the tour, and by the time the group found a way to appeal, the dates of all eight scheduled performances had passed. Even though his 2004 visa now indicates he is not a terrorist threat, Runge was again detained in February at customs in Boston as his background was thoroughly checked before he was allowed in.

In light of the Cuban music boom-particularly the success of the Buena Vista Social Club members and the emergence in America of Chucho Valdes-Americans got used to having Cuban music for sale in stores, played in restaurants and performed in concert halls. The Clinton administration loosened restrictions in 1999 for “people-to-people” exchanges, but in light of section 212f, the Patriot Act and other measures, things are worse than they were before 1999.

“Before 1999 we were getting people in, says Bill Martinez, a San Francisco lawyer who helps foreign artists get visas. “We started getting people in in greater numbers in ’96 or ’97. I would say, if I had to guess, it would be 20 percent of the applicants from Cuba are getting in these days. I hate to say it-I don’t want to discourage people from doing [people-to-people] exchanges-but we have to face the reality that a small group of advisors to Bush on this are cold and calculated to the point of disdain for the people.”

Of course there have long been problems in Miami between Cuban immigrants and Cuban nationals whenever the nationals played in the area. Many claim that the Bush administration has caved in to the political interests of the Cuban American population, which helped him get elected amid the furor of “Chad-gate,” when the 2000 presidential election hung in the balance of a few thousand contested votes. Thus whenever Cuban musicians are invited by organizers to high-profile events, such as the Grammys or Latin Grammys, section 212f is trotted out.

However, some Cuban-Americans have recently changed their tune a little bit: Martinez says he sees signs that South Florida is becoming less hard-line. But the Bush administration continues with the security measures. “It’s the reality of an election year,” Martinez says. “It’s politics. And it’s a miscalculation just as much as he’s miscalculated a lot of things. The fact is that he’s beholden to these people, and he thinks that it’s going to get him elected. Sadly, he needs Florida, and it’s as simple as that.”

A big problem for many is that there are no guidelines written down of what exactly constitutes a threat to national security. George Wein’s Festival Productions books a number of festivals each year, including the JVC festivals and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. According to talent buyer Dan Melnick, the company has been lucky so far, although Afro-beat artist Femi Kuti had problems getting his band into the country in 2002 and had to use a pick-up band for the first few dates of his tour, which included a New Orleans festival date.

“It’s all based on a particular person in a country where we have a consulate,” says Melnick. “A guy at a consulate in Germany is going to make a decision when a band comes in for whatever the reason. And there is nothing we can do about it. That for us is the biggest problem-it’s just so gray.”

“The first time I did a visa after 9/11 was for Enrico Rava and things got very delayed,” says Laura Evans, artistic administrator for SFJazz. “It was right down to the last minute, and he didn’t make it. They had just a few days to get approval on their end. Then one artist did it for the group and they had to all send their passports in, and one of them got lost in the mail. It just became too much, so now I do the $1,000 extortion fee.”

The appeal process is just as mysterious as the approval process, but there has been some encouraging news. One recent example of a successful overturn of a rejection is the Paco de Lucia winter tour. Cuban national Alain Rodriguez, de Lucia’s bass player, who is now a resident of Spain, had his visa application rejected. Though the band missed dates at the beginning of the tour, every avenue was explored on its behalf by supporters, including the cultural minister of Spain making an inquiry about it in a meeting with secretary of state Colin Powell.

According to Martinez, “The truth of the matter is we don’t know exactly how his visa got approved because we kept pushing on every angle. But mainly by keeping in contact with the bureau of consular affairs, continued contact with [Senator] Hillary Clinton’s office, who would then contact their people at the FBI.”

When there’s a visa problem, it’s obviously painful for the petitioner, but there the effects are far-ranging. Other members of the group are affected because the tour is canceled or dates are missed. The presenters bringing the artist in could go under if they are part of a small grassroots organization that can’t absorb such a loss in revenue after fronting a lot of money. Other businesses that lose are hotels and transportation companies. Advertising money is wasted on events that don’t happen, record sales in each city don’t go up after the concert. Multiply that by five or 10 cities, and it adds hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income and expenses.

This is to say nothing of the disappointment fans feel when gigs get canceled. It’s rare enough when a foreign artist is able to travel thousands of miles to do a show; making it harder for that to happen makes a tenuous situation even closer to impossible. The American cultural landscape takes a hit as well. All arts flourish when new ideas come in; keeping them out will eventually affect the art and players, jazz or otherwise.

One need look no further than the jazz festival lineups in 2004 to gauge the impact the Bush Administration’s policy is having. Most festivals round out bills with a smattering of world music or international artists, who are brought in to broaden the festival for the players and the audience.

But there is little chance of anything changing as long as the government feels that what it is doing is working.

All artists and music fans can do is continue to create and question. Pianist Vijay Iyer and hip-hop poet Mike Ladd responded artistically with In What Language? The album was a reaction to Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi being wrongfully detained at John F. Kennedy airport while on the way to a film festival in South America even before 9/11.

“We mainly tried to complicate people’s understandings of the world, without compromising,” says Iyer. “But the people who get it are the people who already get it, in a sense; it’s like preaching to the choir. But one thing we can do as performers is give people an occasion to come together. These occasions can also serve as opportunities to disseminate some real information and to incite people to collective action. This is what we should all be doing.”