HAVANA, Cuba -- Despite a recent thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the New York Philharmonic was reminded last week that it's still easier for an American orchestra to play in nuclear-armed North Korea than in the long-estranged Caribbean island next door.
The Philharmonic announced Friday it had postponed a historic trip to Havana planned for later this month, after U.S. Treasury Department officials denied travel permission to the orchestra patrons who were financially supporting the performances. Though U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba generally prohibit Americans from traveling there, U.S. regulators had granted permission to musicians and orchestra staff, but they wouldn't allow the orchestra's patrons to go.
It would have been the most high-profile American cultural event in Cuba in a half-century. But without supporters, who were to cover the roughly $10,000 in travel costs per musician, "the trip is not possible," orchestra spokesman Eric Latzky said in a statement.
The orchestra's would-be Cuban hosts saw a spiteful double standard in this, since the Philharmonic and its patrons were allowed to travel to North Korea last year, and the orchestra's current tour in Asia includes a stop in communist Vietnam later this month.
More broadly, the cancelled performances seemed to undercut the Obama administration's recent support for concerts and cultural events as a path to improved bilateral relations. Was the Obama administration cooling down the musical diplomacy? Or was it simply a bureaucratic matter, and a temporary obstacle?
For Cubans who have a hard time believing a U.S. federal agency would act independently of the White House, the distinction didn't seem to matter. Suddenly, the frustration and bitter rhetoric that characterized U.S.-Cuba relations during the Bush administration were back.
"This shows that the U.S. government is the only party responsible for the failure of this major cultural project," said Cuban Institute of Music Vice President Alejandro Guma on an official government website, blaming Washington's "irrational" Cuba policy.
"This is a project, by the way, that was not conceived by Cuba, but by the Philharmonic," Guma added, describing efforts and preparations that had been completed in preparation for the performances, which have not been rescheduled. As if to highlight the sense of goodwill that had been thwarted by U.S. regulators, Guma said the performances were to include Cuban compositions, "whose scores were already in the hands of the American musicians."
Cuban officials said the island would remain open to the Philharmonic. But the failure of such a high-profile cultural exchange threw cold water on what had been a period of unusually cordial relations, eased by music, between the U.S. and Cuba. Under the Bush administration, which took a more aggressive stance against the Castro government, travel regulations to Cuba were tightened for Americans, and top Cuban artists, like Grammy-winning jazz icon Chucho Valdes, were routinely denied U.S. visas.
Under a new strategy of "engagement," the Obama administration wants to promote "the free flow of information and interaction between the United States and the Cuban people," according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
And some very good music has been flowing recently.
With the White House's blessing, Colombian pop icon Juanes headlined a massive "Peace without Borders" concert in Havana's Revolutionary Square that drew up to a million Cuban fans.
It also touched off heated protests and street scuffles in Miami, where Juanes has a home. The artists' supporters squared off against angry critics who symbolically destroyed copies of his CDs and accused him of providing a propaganda boost to Cuba's communist government.
But as an act of cultural diplomacy, the concert seemed to make a difference, especially after Juanes used the open venue to call for a "free Cuba" and "one Cuban family." A poll conducted after the performance and published in the Miami Herald last week found 53 percent of Cuban Americans had a favorable opinion of the show afterwards, compared with 29 percent who expressed a negative view. In contrast, prior to the event, 47 percent of Cuban Americans had been against it, with only 27 percent in support.
Other recent cultural events also seemed to hasten the U.S.-Cuba thaw. For the first time in years, dozens of Cuban artists and intellectuals attended a reception at the residence of the U.S.'s chief diplomat in Cuba, and several prominent artists, such as Buena Vista Social Club star Omara Portuondo and Cuban folksinger Pablo Milanes, have received visas to play in the U.S. after being shut out for years.
As for the Philharmonic trip, Treasury Department officials said the agency does not comment on Cuba travel applications. But the orchestra's directors said they were working with lawmakers to get the necessary permissions for an eventual trip, which could occur as soon as June or July.