LEGAL SAVVY KEEPS CUBAN MUSICIANS COMING But Times Are Tough for Lawyer Who Specializes in Bringing Island's Artists to U.S.
By Itir Yakar Daily Journal Staff Writer
SAN FRANCISCO - Whenever Cuban musicians play jazz in San Francisco, chances are good Bill Martinez is in the audience. More likely than not, he helped bring the band to the United States. In a world of increasingly restricted travel between the United States and Cuba, Martinez, a veteran immigration attorney, is known as the "Cuba guy." Over the years, he mastered how to navigate through red tape to help Cuban and U.S. musicians get the required documentation to perform in each others' countries. "I was identified in the country as the guy that could get visas for Cuban artists," said Martinez, who is of Mexican descent. A music producer since his days at college in the 1970s, Martinez also helps stage concerts for the musicians he brings to the United States from various parts of the world, often making no money for that part of his work. But Martinez's job is getting harder rather than easier. He said the Bush administration has increasingly tightened artists' travel between the two countries, making it more difficult for Cuban musicians to come here unless they reside outside of Cuba, one of the world's few remaining communist regimes. Last year, out of the 44,000 visas the State Department issued to foreign artists to perform in the United States, only 18 went to artists from Cuba. That's a sharp decrease from previous years. In 2002, the State Department approved visas for 489 Cuban artists out of a total of 45,032 visas issued globally for entertainers. In 2000, those numbers were 688 and 48,239, respectively. In 1998, they were 632 visas for Cuban artists out of 39,095 total. A small portion of those visas went to scientists and athletes. A State Department spokesman denied any change in visa policy for entertainers. He said the requirements for obtaining visas for traveling Cuban musicians have been the same for decades. "There's no policy shifts specific to performance," said Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Watnik said U.S. immigration law in general assumes that anyone applying for a travel visa actually intends to immigrate to the United States illegally. All applicants, including Cubans, must overcome this assumption, Watnik said. He said Cubans have a harder time meeting this requirement because they are eligible for asylum once they set foot in the United States under the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy. Under the policy, Cubans attempting to illegally immigrate to the United States who are intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba, but those who make it to U.S. land may apply for asylum, which is granted within one year. Watnik said Cuban artists must also prove that any money they make at concerts in the United States will not be channeled back to the Cuban government. He added that it is very difficult to differentiate between Cubans earning money for themselves and those working for the government. Laura Tischler, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said that although the United States has further tightened travel for employees of the Cuban government and members of the Communist Party, there has been no blanket decision to block travel by artists. "Since most Cuban artists are paid by the Cuban government, they are rightly considered to be its employees," Tischler said. "We continue to make decisions on visa applications for Cuban artists on a case-by-case basis, and we issue visas only when applicants qualify under U.S. law." She added that the state Department recognizes "the importance of cultural exchange and supports the travel of international entertainers to this country." Nevertheless, Martinez laments that Ibrahim Ferrer, one of the lead singers of the Buena Vista Social Club, was not allowed to return to the United States in 2004 to collect his Grammy award before he died. Martinez had previously arranged visas for the entire band for its celebrated 1998 performance at New York's Carnegie Hall. The denial of the visas came after President Bush announced in 2003 that his administration was tightening enforcement of Cuba travel restrictions in response to President Fidel Castro's jailing of 75 Cuban opposition members. Bush also established a new commission to hasten and prepare for a regime change in Cuba.
In its report to the president last month, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba noted that the administration's "sharp" reductions in travel to the island has succeeded in curtailing the Castro regime's "manipulation and profiteering from the U.S. humanitarian policies." The United States broke diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961, shortly after Castro came to power in 1959, and imposed economic sanctions against Cuba. The first restrictions on U.S.-Cuba travel followed in 1963 under the Kennedy administration, and subsequent administrations have taken differing stands on the travel policy. President Ronald Reagan further restricted travel between the two countries under the "Reagan Proclamation," while President Bill Clinton allowed artists and others to travel more freely to promote "people-to-people exchange." It was during the Clinton years that Martinez brought most of his clients to perform in the United States. They included Chucho Valdes, Los Van Van, Spirit of Havana, Cubanismo and Irakere. In 1999, he acted as both legal counsel and producer of Music Bridges, an event that Martinez defines as a "historic cultural exchange" that brought 50 American and 100 Cuban artists together in Havana, including Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight and Woody Harrelson. "I dream of those days again," Martinez said. The U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control implements the travel and embargo restrictions and handles the licensing of American musicians who want to travel to Cuba. A Treasury spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise, said Clinton's people-to-people program was suspended "as we saw a lot of abuse of the program." She said the program didn't always achieve its objective of bringing ordinary citizens into direct contact. She also noted that the Cuban government often asked to approve agendas. These days, Martinez is busy helping produce concerts in the Bay Area for Cuban musicians from around the world as well as bands from other countries. Last month, he helped bring to the United States the Refugee All Stars, a reggae band from the civil war-torn Sierra Leone. The band played to a sold-out crowd at a San Francisco club, the Independent, as Martinez watched. Although getting the visas for the Sierra Leone band went smoothly, it took a lot of effort to physically deliver the visa paperwork to the musicians who lived in refugee camps. Martinez worked with the State Department, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the office of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and consular officers in Africa to get approval notices to the band members. When Martinez works on requests to bring Cuban musicians here, he must overcome the presumption that the artists are employees of the Cuban government and members of the Communist Party. He must present detailed itineraries, show that the artists are internationally recognized talents and that they have a venue that is sponsoring them in the United States.
Despite the tricky requirements Martinez must meet for his clients, he still calls his work a dream job: His practice combines his passion for music and his desire to help the local community. Before becoming an immigration attorney, Martinez, 54, taught at New College of California School of Law and also served as the school's dean of admissions. He has been working with Cuban musicians and other foreign artists since 1989. "I always saw the power, even as a teenager, of music bringing communities together," Martinez said. The power of music and Martinez's contagious love of Latin jazz inspired at least one concert-goer to switch careers after attending a show Martinez helped produce in 1999. Arturo Riera, a veteran sales manager for a San Francisco-based TV sports channel at the time, said he was soul-searching when he attended Encuentro del Canto Popular, an annual Latin American music festival Martinez co-founded. Riera said he wanted to meet the person who produced the show. "This person is doing what I want to do," Riera recalled thinking during a recent interview. "And that person was Bill Martinez." Now a friend and production partner of Martinez, and the president of that San Jose Jazz Festival, Riera has also become an outspoken critic of federal authorities. He said the current U.S. policy restricting travel by artists hurts America. "It goes against all things I grew up with as American ideals of democracy," Riera said. "The difficulty is the lack of visas, access to visas, slowing down of the process. There were many concerts Bill Martinez and I scheduled, where (the musicians) didn't get their visa at the last minute." Nevertheless, the hurdles have not stopped Martinez. Recently, he obtained visas for the Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Chuchito Valdes, the son of Chucho Valdes who resides in Mexico, and Latin jazz flautist Orlando "Maraca" Valle, who lives in France. Valdes is scheduled to perform at the free Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on Sept. 2, and Maraca is slated to perform at Yoshi's in Oakland Oct. 4 to 8.