Big Trouble in Little Havana

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Singer Ricky Martin

First they lost Elian. Now they've lost Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera, too. Monday's decision to move the annual Latin music Grammy awards ceremony from Miami to avoid Cuban-American protests deals a blow to efforts by the organized exile community to soften its image following last year's Elian Gonzalez debacle. And the pain will be deepened by the fact that controversy over how to respond to the event had caused the most dramatic split in decades in the preeminent exile group, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).

Twenty key leaders last week announced their resignation from the CANF over differences with its leader, Jorge Mas Santos, not least over whether to try and disrupt the Grammy ceremony. The more militant elements in the exile community are affronted by the presence of increasingly popular Cuba-based musicians in the awards ceremony, and had planned protest actions in order to draw attention to the Castro government's restrictions on artistic expression. The planned protest followed a long-established exile tradition of protesting anything that could be construed as a normalization of ties with Havana

But Mas Santos and other moderate CANF leaders saw the Grammys as an opportunity for the exile community to redeem its image in light of the charges of intolerance that followed last year's Elian Gonzalez saga. The protests against the return of the six-year-old to his father in Cuba prompted charges of intolerance within Miami, and did little to endear the exile community to the wider American mainstream. And with pressure mounting in Washington for a reexamination of the four-decade-old embargo against Cuba that has failed to make any discernible dent in Fidel Castro's power, Mas Santos and other younger CANF leaders saw the Grammys as an opportunity to show the exiles on their best behavior — which was why they lobbied hard for the show to be held in their city in the first place.

Whereas Mas Santos and many other younger U.S.-born and raised Cuban-American leaders have a keen sense of the importance of tapering their message to the political center, many of the older generation who actually fled Castro's rule are suspicious of anything that smells like compromise. While CANF leaders counseled moderation, a coalition of exile groups vowed to mount a vigorous protest against the presence of the Cuba-based musicians at the event — and despite the efforts by Mas Santos and other younger leaders to broker a compromise, the planned protests ultimately spooked the Grammy organizers into baling out. The decision, which cost Miami's tourist industry some $35 million in lost revenues, was the worst possible outcome for the CANF. Not only had the imbroglio forced a damaging political split in the organization, the ultimate decision to withdraw the event had communicated exactly the type of message Mas Santos had been at pains to avoid.

While the Grammy organization has promised to reopen negotiations over holding the event in Miami next year, the wounds in the Cuban exile community may not be as easily healed. Castro's twilight years are proving to be curiously trying for his arch-enemies in Florida, precisely because they've placed the question of a post-Castro Cuba, and current U.S. policy, squarely in the spotlight. And whereas many of the older generation had lived much of their lives expecting to simply sail back in and turn back the clock following some cataclysmic event that would see Castro overthrown, the reality is beginning to dawn that the aging strongman is more likely to choose his own retirement date, and that his regime won't necessarily retire along with him. And that's prompted growing concern in Washington that the longstanding embargo may actually be functioning to deny the U.S. influence over the shape of a post-Castro Cuba. Increasingly urgent calls for more U.S. engagement with people on the island has challenged the CANF and other exiled groups to find new ways to make their own voices heard in shaping the future of Washington's Cuba policy. The Latin Grammy debacle suggests that the exiles may struggle to stay in tune.