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Despite cooler U.S.-Cuba relations, Kennedy Center hosts largest celebration of Cuban artists

"It's a great joy to present and strengthen Cuban culture and arts in this complicated moment," said percussionist Yissy Garcia at an historic festival.
by Marisa Arbona-Ruiz /
Image: Artes de Cuba Opening Performance
Aymee Nuviola performs during the Artes de Cuba Opening Performance.Jati Lindsay / Kennedy Center

WASHINGTON — Despite the Trump administration's changes regarding U.S.-Cuba policy and news of fewer U.S. visitors traveling to Cuba this year, the largest, most ambitious gathering of Cuban artists is taking place in the nation's capital.

The Kennedy Center is hosting over 400 Cuban and Cuban-American artists as part of the Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World, encompassing Cuban music, dance, fashion, theatre, film and visual arts, taking place from May 8th through the 20th.

Three years in the making, it comes in the shadow of the Trump administration’s tougher policy toward the Cuban government and Cuba's transition to a new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel. Despite all the changes, the festival's lineup is historic.

“It’s unprecedented for this many Cuban artists to be gathered for a two-week festival, in this country — and I understand from the Cubans, anywhere else in world," said Alicia Adams, vice president of International Programming and Festival Curator for the Kennedy Center.

Image: Artes de Cuba Opening Performance
Orquesta Miguel Failde performs during the Artes de Cuba Opening Performance.Jati Lindsay / Kennedy Center

The event was put into motion during Obama’s historic efforts to open up relations between the two governments after almost 60 years of acrimonious political relations. For festival organizers, maneuvering through politics became logistically challenging with the Trump administration’s change in policies toward the Cuban government and the sharp reduction in U.S. Embassy personnel in Havana following a series of unexplained health incidents.

Even before the recent changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, the festival's organizers had 200 visas to process at the time of Trump's inaguration. “My goal was to do this festival and to bring these artists here. It was on the books three years ago and we were very far along,” said Adams. "So, we had to arrange for the artists to go through the embassy in Mexico City to get their visas.”

Adams added that “the American people don’t necessarily get to see these artists in this way… and can’t wait.” With American tourism dropping significantly in Cuba this year because of the new travel restrictions as well as warnings issued after mysterious health incidents plagued the U.S. Embassy in Havana, organizers and supporters hope it makes a positive impact for both Cuba and the US.

On the festival's first day on Tuesday, the legendary Omara Portuondo, 87, known to fans around the world as the "Diva" of the musical group Buena Vista Social Club, performed to a cheering and sold-out audience.

“It brings me such joy and pride to share my feelings, in the music and in the humanity here,” Portuondo said after her performance.

Image: Artes de Cuba Opening Performance
Omara Portuondo performs during the Artes de Cuba Opening Performance.Jati Lindsay / Kennedy Center

Multidisciplinary artist and first generation Cuban-American José Parlá said artists have been a "bridge" between the two countries, and praised the significance of the festival.

"It’s taken a long time for this to happen," he said. "It’s a shame. But we’re here — art can be a very powerful tool."

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Cuban visual artist “Raupa” (Raúl Valdés González) likened the efforts to make the events happen to an “unstoppable train.” At the opening concert, audience member Emilio Bernal Labrada said he had "never seen anything like this" since leaving Cuba 60 years ago. In the past, he has relied on smaller art festivals in Miami for his homeland infusion of culture.

Image: Artes de Cuba Opening Performance
Al Arango performs during the Artes de Cuba Opening Performance.Jati Lindsay / Kennedy Center

Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, has been instrumental in urging more diversity and inclusion to the Kennedy Center Honors awards and events. For Cuban artists, “their identity is being recognized like never before," said Sanchez. "It’s not polished, it’s not manicured, it's original — the relatability of the event and the talent is what makes us want to share in it.”

Sharing the stage with Omara Portuondo in a stream of performances were Cubadisco award-winning pianist Rolando Luna, the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, jazz composer and pianist Aldo López-Gavilán, acclaimed composer and musician Yosvany Terry, pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco, the renowned Orquesta Miguel Faílde and GRAMMY nominated Aymée Nuviola whose dynamic and rousing performance brought the audience to their feet, before teaming up in a beautiful duet with Portuondo.

Image: Artes de Cuba Opening Performance
From left, Omara Portuondo and Aymee Nuviola perform during the Artes de Cuba Opening Performance.Jati Lindsay / Kennedy Center

Percussionist Yissy Garcia, who performed Wednesday with her band Bandancha, said the festival was "un sueño," a dream. "It's a great joy to present and strengthen Cuban culture and arts in this complicated moment, and for me, a great honor," she said. "Cuba and the United States have powerful musical potential, and the more we come together, the more we can continue to grow and enrich our cultures — there’s a beautiful energy here and we want to leave it in Washington.”

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