Vacationing MSNBC arts and entertainment blogger Jan Herman has been following the issue of foreign aritsts being denied visas into the US of late. He lamented the exclusion of Chucho Valdes from the Latin Grammys back in September:
- Can refusing him a visa be anything other than the Bush Administration’s vindictiveness toward Cuba? It was OK for Valdes to be in this country as recently as earlier this summer, where I caught him in a mesmerizing performance at the Blue Note in New York. But it’s not OK for him to attend the Latin Grammy Awards?
He followed up on October 1 when the victim was an Iranian film director:
- The U.S. State Department’s visa war against foreign performers and artists is wreaking havoc not just in high-profile places like New York and Los Angeles.
Although the latest development involves the New York Film Festival and the denial of a visa to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, the acclaimed winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, there’s been a wave of canceled appearances across the country.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, an off-shoot of the Buena Vista Social Club, has canceled its 17-city U.S. tour. In Southern California alone, performances by artists from the Middle East, Cuba and Japan were dumped just in the last two weeks.
A week later he sleuthed out a possible explanation:
- Without intending to, William Finnegan has clarified one of the mysteries of the U.S. government’s visa war against foreign artists.
In the current New Yorker, Finnegan profiles Cuban-born, rightwing ideologue Otto Juan Reich, the current U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. A Bush apparatchik virtually unknown to the public, Reich is “an anti-Castro fanatic” who was appointed to the post by the president over Congressional objections. He is seen by his critics not just as Bush’s point man in Latin America but as something of an avenging angel.
All you have to do is read Finnegan’s piece to realize why the U.S. State Department, under the guise of fulfilling the new anti-terrorism laws, has been so vindictive toward Cuban artists, making it difficult (and in some cases impossible) for them to perform in this country.
It’s not unreasonable to surmise that because of Reich, the guy in charge of carrying out Latin American policy, a personal obsession with Castro has resulted in the idee fixe that Cuba must be quarantined to keep even positive influences from leaking out.
But it’s not as simple as it looks. There’s a fishy selectivity to the visa war. For instance, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars had to cancel their 17-city U.S. tour. And Latin Grammy-winner Chucho Valdez, the great jazz pianist, had to cancel his U.S. bookings. Yet the lesser-known Cuban Orquesta Fantasia has been allowed into the country to play a single concert this month in Oshkosh, Wis.
And now another strange development: Joaquim Pozo, a mesmerizing, little-known conga player who teaches jazz at The National School of Arts in Havana, has been allowed to bring five student players to Palo Alto, Calif., this week at the invitation of the local jazz society. Their visas came through suddenly at the last minute, says the Palo Alto Jazz Society’s Ana Holmby, but only after Pozo and his band were forced to miss dates that had been booked for them at the high-profile Monterey Jazz Festival.
It sounds to me like a clever ploy: Keep out the best-known, most influential artists who might, after all, offer a positive image of Cuba on a large scale (in large venues and with CD sales to a large public); let in other artists who will draw smaller crowds in smaller venues and thus limit positive impact, while sending the message that U.S. policy is fair and generous.
The good news is that, for legislative reasons, Reich’s appointment will not last beyond the end of the year.
Reich may explain Cuba policy, but the latest flap is back to Iran:
- Iranian film director Bahman Qobadi has handed back a Chicago film festival prize in protest at the U.S. government’s failure to issue him a visa to collect the award, the director said on Wednesday.
Qobadi’s film, “Marooned in Iraq” a follow-up to his hugely successful 2000 debut “A Time For Drunken Horses,” was awarded the 38th Chicago International Film Festival’s Gold Plaque.
“With many thanks to the festival organizers I am handing over my prize to the American government in order to teach them how to respect artists,” Qobadi told Reuters.
Qobadi was the second leading Iranian film figure in less than a month to fall foul of tighter U.S. immigration policy. Earlier this month, acclaimed film director Abbas Kiarostami also failed to obtain a U.S. visa to attend the New York Film Festival.
“What they did to Kiarostami is terrible, he is a famous film director and does not deserve such behavior,” Qobadi said.
Washington has labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Iran strongly denies the charges.
Iran last week barred CNN’s chief international correspondent Christian Amanpour from entering the country in what it said was a tit-for-tat response to the U.S. government’s denial of visas to Iranian journalists and artists.
Other Iranian filmakers also criticized the U.S. government, saying that art should not be influenced by politics.
“ART IS ABOVE POLITICS”
“This move is condemned because America claims to support peace and democracy,” Maziar Miri, a film director, told Reuters.
“Art is above politics and hostilities. It should remain like that,” said Miri.
International film festivals have become an important release valve for Iranian film makers whose work is often heavily censored at home.
Directors such as Qobadi have won a host of awards at festivals in recent years, including the Golden Camera for Best Film at Cannes in 2000 for “A Time for Drunken Horses.”
I have no problem with the “axis of evil” designation, but I do have a problem with using artists as pawns in a game of political showmanship: this cheapens art and throws wood onto the fire of political cynicism.