BEFORE leaving office, former President Bush tried to force Cuba into a democratic path by tightening the economic embargo imposed some 30 years ago. His move late last year brought cheers from anti-Castro forces in the United States.
In the meantime, Castro may be winning a battle of sorts in a very different field: that of culture. Cuba is squeezing its way into the US through the back door. At the same time, it has been forced to tolerate an invasion of "imperialist American art" through the air waves and via pirate recordings. In fact, Cuban musicians, painters, sculptors, even writers who have not broken with the regime are a growing presence in the US these days, helped by many loopholes in the legislation.
Sometimes it looks as though their presence is achieved with a wink of the eye from officials at both the US State Department and Havana's Foreign Ministry, despite all recitations of mutual bans and restrictions. At a recent Art Miami 93 fair in Florida, for instance, officially-sanctioned Cuban artists like Jose Bedia, Ana Albertina Delgado, Consuelo Cantaneda and Ruben Torres Llorca prominently displayed their works in a space occupied by the Mexican gallery Nina Menocal. Most of them reside in Mexico
part of the year, so their works regularly enter the US as Mexican cultural goods. Others, like Tomas Sanchez, have been helped in a similar way by US galleries. Or, as in the case of renowned painter Jose Franco, by powerful foundations like the Guggenheim, which administer fellowships and grants.
At the core of this matter is a series of flawed regulations that provide the opportunity to sneak in art from the island.
The US law only prohibits sale of a Cuban product if the sale's earnings end up in the Cuban government's coffers. But if an artist sells his or her works individually and keeps the money - which is precisely what most Cuban painters exhibiting overseas are now doing - there is no legal way of preventing him or her from making a profit in the US. Until recent years, the Cuban government had the right to keep all artists' fees from performances, exhibitions, and sales overseas. The policy has apparently c hanged.
In a quid pro quo, Castro now allows the artists to keep the money they earn abroad, provided they do not break with his regime. So far, most have obliged.
Regulations requiring all performers to permanently reside on the island also have been relaxed. Some prominent Cuban musicians have been permitted to leave Cuba for a period. Jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba was permitted to keep a summer house in the Dominican Republic - something unthinkable not long ago for a Cuban government-sponsored artist.
Mr. Rubalcaba's case is exemplary of the many contradictions in US-Cuba cultural relations. Under the embargo provisions, he has not been allowed to perform in the US. But his records, licensed through Japan and made in Canada, have been freely distributed in this country by a major record label, Blue Note, for the last four years.
IN yet another blatant contradiction, the rhumba group Los Munequitos de Matanzas, one of the island's better known popular music bands, recently made a highly successful 16-city tour of the US. The band was allowed into the country by the State Department as a "noncommercial orchestra" performing for not-for-profit organizations - a technicality many have viewed as hypocritical.
Los Munequitos drew large audiences to sold-out concerts in New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia and other parts of the US. In many of those places, people threw folded dollar bills onto the stage as a form of showing their dissatisfaction with the federal government's circumvented way of allowing the band to play here.
A New York-based recording company called QBADISC, headed by American musicologist Ned Sublette, has been putting out Los Munequitos' records and those of other Cuban groups like NG La Banda and the Orquestra Original de Manzanillo in the US market for the last two years.
Mr. Sublette, who claims he wants to "stay away from politics" and fulfill a personal dream of "making this music be heard by Americans," says a broad interpretation of the Berman Amendment, which permits dissemination of Cuban information and cultural items, allows him to distribute the albums because they have been recorded in Cuba, not produced here.
The musicologist says, and many others who travel to Cuba regularly testify, that the sneaking of US music into the island is so commonplace that the Castro government has virtually ceased to care about it.
Bootlegged cassettes and videotapes abound in Cuba. Miami-based radio stations are heard regularly everywhere, so US music is no longer alien to young and old Cuban listeners.
Apparently, both the US and the Cuban governments have given up trying to stem this new wave of cultural exchanges. Officially, neither side admits to easing its restrictions, but the fact of the matter is that everybody is looking the other way.
People seem to be enjoying each other's music, paintings, and other forms of art regardless of what their governments think about it. It may be another triumph of art over politics, or of freedom over censorship.