Ballet seen as step toward Cuba, U.S. rapprochement

Cuban ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso once symbolized the rift between her nation and the United States.

The Cuban National Ballet company she founded is considered among the best in the world, but politics kept it from performing in the U.S. for decades.

Now, as the U.S. and Cuba move toward normalized relations, some in Tampa want Alonso to be a symbol of the strengthening ties between this city and the island nation.

Rosa Teresa Rodriguez Lauzurique, Cuba’s director of international relations for its Ministry of Culture, has been in Tampa this week for meetings she hopes will lead to an official talent exchange program between Tampa and Cuba. Cuba’s most sought-after entertainers would be available to perform at Tampa’s best venues and vice versa.

Among those with whom she spoke were city officials and leaders from the Straz Center. Lauzurique was deemed important enough by the Straz Center that its philanthropic namesake, David Straz, took part in her tour of the facility.

She also met with representatives from the Cuban Club and Centro Asturiano — Ybor City social club buildings, each with large theaters and other performance spaces for art shows and concerts.

“Arts and culture are the best ways for people from different backgrounds to learn about each other,” Lauzurique said through a translator. “Through these talent exchanges, we can build a bridge between Tampa and Cuba.”

As Cuba’s director of international relations for its Ministry of Culture, Lauzurique is the government’s point person for those who want to book the island’s nation’s premiere artists internationally. And if Tampa talent wants to perform on grand stages in Cuba, she can help make that happen.

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One topic of conversation during discussions this week was using an appearance by Alonso to kick off a cultural partnership between Tampa and Cuba.

“If we could bring Alicia Alonso here just to walk out on the stage at a place like the Straz Center before a show, she would bring the house down,” said Albert A. Fox, whose Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation organized Lauzurique’s meetings. “She is a legend.”

Judith Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz Center, said she has attempted to bring Alonso to Tampa on a few occasions.

If Tampa and Cuba can agree to a cultural exchange program, the possibility of an Alonso visit may be greater than ever.

“We did chat about that happening as part of our discussion with the Cuban delegation this week,” Lisi said. “It would be exciting, but we’ll see how things proceed.”

Lauzurique’s trip to Tampa was sponsored by Fox, Ybor City developer Ariel Quintela, the CPA firm of Saltmarsh Cleaveland & Gund and Tampa resident and her close friend Vicente Amor.

It is up to Tampa to make the next move, said Tampa City Council member Yvonne Capin, who met with Lauzurique during her visit.

“Cuba wants a cultural exchange,” Capin said. “We need to show Cuba we are serious about it, too.”

For Capin, that means a delegation of government and public sector leaders from Tampa traveling to Cuba for a follow-up meeting.

“Cuba is offering Tampa their greatest artists,” Capin said. “Now we need to meet in Cuba and tell them what we can offer and then work out all the details.”

Capin and Lauzurique have a relationship dating to 2013, when Lauzurique came to Tampa to attend the Cuban Cultural Fest, a weekend-long event in Ybor City that celebrated Tampa’s ties to the island nation through food, art and live performances.

It was then that Lauzurique mentioned to Capin her interest in setting up a regular cultural exchange program.

Capin traveled to Cuba as part of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce delegation later in 2013 and went to Cuba again last summer. That trip was part of a delegation led by Fox that also included State Rep. Darryl Rouson and representatives from the Gasparilla Music Festival who were interested in annually booking top Cuba musicians for their event.

Capin and the music festival connected with Lauzurique, and from those discussions the festival was able to schedule Laritza Bacallao — one of Cuba’s top pop stars — as a headliner for last weekend’s event. Lauzurique attended the Bacallao performance.

“There were lots of people,” Lauzurique said. “Those are the types of big events our two countries need to be represented at. This trip to Tampa was hopefully beginning of that road.”

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The possibility of a cultural exchange program is the latest sign that Tampa is reconnecting to the island nation.

Parishioners at Tampa’s St. Lawrence Catholic Church are funding the ongoing construction of the first Catholic church to be built on the island since its government embraced communism; both U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce are pushing for a Cuban consulate in Tampa; and Tampa’s Florida Aquarium is finalizing a partnership with the National Aquarium of Havana.

“Our city has the deeper roots with Cuba than any other in the U.S.,” said developer Quintela, who gave Lauzurique a history tour of Ybor City. “We should be the leaders of this normalization process.”

It was to Tampa in the late 1800s that the first major wave of Cuban immigrants came to work in the cigar industry — the largest in the world at that time. And it was in Tampa that Cuba’s revolutionary leader José Martí fundraised for and then announced the start of his nation’s war of independence against colonialist Spain.

Because of those roots, it was Tampa — not New York City or Miami — that was the destination of choice for Cuba’s top musical and theatrical talent to perform. In exchange, Tampa entertainers were booked in Cuba.

But when Castro rose to power, regular talent exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba ceased.

Still, some of Cuba’s top entertainers have performed in Tampa over the years.

Besides the Cuban National Ballet performance, the Cuban Cultural Festival and the Gasparilla Music Festival, Tampa’s Florida Orchestra in November 2012 sponsored two performances by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba. In return, The Florida Orchestra sent two musical delegations to Cuba, one in 2011 and another in 2013.

The Gasparilla International Film Festival annually showcases films made in Cuba and will do so again at its ninth event, to be held March 24-29.

This is all progress, said Lauzurique, but the performances are still too few and far between.

Straz Center CEO Lisi agrees.

“We would like to do more,” she said. “Tampa has such a unique relationship with Cuba. We just want to bring people together to see great work.”

By Paul Guzzo, The Tampa Tribune

March 12, 2015

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