Friendlier Obama tune on Cuba brings musical detente

Fri Dec 4, 2009 3:38pm EST
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By Esteban Israel

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban musicians are returning to perform in the United States after a long freeze on such visits, seizing the opportunity of friendlier overtures toward Havana from U.S. President Barack Obama.

Well-known Cuban musicians are being granted visas to perform at U.S. venues in a sign that Obama's administration is quietly promoting cultural contacts as part of a strategy of warmer "people to people" ties with the Communist-run island.

The more relaxed atmosphere between the Cold War era enemies is perhaps most evident in the arts, which in the past has provided a bridge between the two neighbors which have not had formal diplomatic ties for close to half a century.

Omara Portuondo, the 79-year-old diva of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club group, was invited to help host the Latin Grammy awards last month in Las Vegas, a ceremony off-limits for Cuban artists during the hardline relationship that marked the Bush administration years.

After taking office in January, Obama promised to "recast" U.S.-Cuban ties and softened some sanctions, although the 47-year U.S. trade embargo remains in place and Cuba is still on a U.S. list of "state sponsors of terrorism."

Obama's easing included lifting restrictions on family visits by Cuban Americans to the island, and has now been followed by a string of U.S. visas for cultural exchanges.

Portuondo's visit was soon followed by one by the Septeto Nacional, another legend of Cuban 'son' rhythm that has just returned from touring New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and even Miami, a stronghold of die-hard Cuban exiles that in the past has often been hostile to such appearances.

Another well-known Cuban singer-songwriter, Carlos Varela, is currently on a three-week U.S. visit.   Continued...

<p>Cuban singer Omara Portuondo receives her award for Best Contemporary Tropical Album with "Gracias" at the 10th annual Latin Grammy awards in Las Vegas, Nevada in this November 5, 2009 file photo.REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files</p>