Thursday, October 15, 2009

Obama Administration Applies Bush Policy to NY Philharmonic

New York Philharmonic Won't Go to Cuba Without Patrons

By DANIEL J. WAKIN, New York Times October 2, 2009

Violinists, bassoonists and timpanists in Cuba? Fine. A bevy of rich Americans? Sorry.

The New York Philharmonic scratched its trip to Cuba at the end of October because the United States government was barring a group of patrons from going along, the orchestra said on Thursday. Without them and their donations, the Philharmonic said, it could not afford the tour.

About 150 board members and other donors had promised to pay $10,000 each to spend Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 in Havana, where the orchestra was to play two concerts, said Zarin Mehta, its president. The money was to have covered the cost of the proposed trip, which came at the invitation of the Cuban government.

Supporters, both individuals and executives of donor companies, usually tag along with major orchestras when they travel around the world. For some, the travel amounts to high-class tourism, along with a chance to make business connections in foreign capitals. In effect, orchestras would not be able to raise tour money without giving the donors a chance to accompany them.

“The patrons were excited about giving us the money with the opportunity of going to see Havana and be a witness and support their orchestra,” Mr. Mehta said. “This is what’s important to them.” Mr. Mehta said he would not consider taking the patrons’ money while leaving them behind.

“I wouldn’t want to insult them,” he said. “I think it’s most likely they would say, ‘Go another time.’ ” That’s what the orchestra will try to do, he said.

Mr. Mehta said he had hoped that pressure applied by New York elected officials — including Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representatives Steve Israel and Charles B. Rangel, who have supported the trip — would help to have the decision overturned. “They haven’t been successful,” he said. “They’re befuddled.”

The spokesman for the State Department, which guides the Treasury Department in deciding which Americans can go to Cuba, said the reason was simple.

The sanctions on Cuba permit performing artists to enter, said the spokesman, P. J. Crowley, but “there’s no permitted category of travel that would include the Philharmonic patrons. Basically they’re tourists, and we don’t license tourist travel to Cuba under the present circumstances.”

He said there was also an economic component to the decision: the wealthy patrons could spend large amounts of money in Cuba, which would effectively violate economic sanctions.

In response to the Philharmonic’s position that it could not go without the financial supporters, he said, “Perhaps the New York Philharmonic should have checked with the government before announcing the trip.”

The cancellation was an embarrassment and something of a setback in the New York Philharmonic’s effort to cast itself as the nation’s flagship traveling orchestra. It made headlines with a trip to Pyongyang, North Korea, nearly two years ago (no United States government permission for patrons was required) and leaves on Sunday for an Asian tour that will take in another Communist nation, Vietnam.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issues licenses to visit Cuba because of the longstanding economic sanctions aimed at the island’s Communist government.

According to the orchestra, the office said informally that the players and staff members would be allowed to go, but not the patrons.

A lawyer for the orchestra has delivered a brief to the licensing office, making its case that the categories are elastic and an exception should be made for the donors. Several board members were allowed to accompany the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra when it visited Havana in 1999.

The trip plans came about amid a warming of relations between Cuba and the United States. The Obama administration has restarted talks about migration and eased limits on remittances and travel by Cuban-Americans to the island to visit relatives. But as a sign of the political thorniness involved in closer ties, the administration extended for a year the law used to impose the trade embargo on Cuba.

Bills pending in both houses of Congress would lift travel restrictions on all Americans to Cuba. The bills have a surprising level of bipartisan support, helped by lobbying by agricultural and business groups eager to expand commercial ties.

“This exposes how arbitrary the rules are governing American citizens’ rights to travel to Cuba,” Julia E. Sweig, an expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of the Treasury Department’s position. “If you have a family member there, you can go. If you play an instrument or sport, you can go. But if you’re a philanthropist who wants to support arts in Cuba, you can’t?”

J. Christopher Flowers, a Philharmonic trustee, said he was still hoping to go to Cuba with the orchestra someday. “It sounds absolutely fascinating,” he said, but he declined to offer an opinion on the decision. “It’s up to the government to make the rules and for us to follow them,” he added. “It’s not for me to try to figure out our policy with respect to Cuba.”

Mr. Flowers said he did not know whether he would have spent much money in Cuba. “I’ve never been there,” he said.

Mr. Mehta said the next opening for a Cuba trip would probably come in June or July. The orchestra will try to come up with concerts quickly to play at its Avery Fisher home for the time it would have been in Havana.

As for programming on those dates, Mr. Mehta said, Latin American music is a distinct possibility. “The thought has crossed our minds.”

Ginger Thompson and Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.

NY Philharmonic cancels trip to Cuba this month
Thu Oct 1, 2009 6:02pm EDT

By Jeff Franks and Michelle Nichols

HAVANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Philharmonic has put off plans to perform in Cuba for the first time this month because the U.S. government has not allowed its sponsors to travel to the communist-led island.

"The postponement is due to existing U.S. Government restrictions on travel to Cuba which would affect project funders and supporters, without whose financial support the trip is not possible," it said in a statement on Thursday.

Known for groundbreaking musical diplomacy with visits to countries such as reclusive communist North Korea last year, the orchestra had planned to travel to Havana from October 30 to Nov 2 to perform two concerts.

But while the United States appears to be easing its long isolation of Cuba and the orchestra said its trip had the support of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, the State Department and the Treasury Department, there were problems associated with long-imposed travel restrictions.

About 150 patrons and supporters had pledged to pay about $10,000 each to accompany the orchestra on the trip to Cuba.

The orchestra had applied for a license for the group to accompany it and, while they had not officially been denied, U.S. officials said there was no category that would allow them to go to Cuba under the current travel regulations, New York Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky said.

The orchestra will try to travel to Cuba at a later date.

"The New York Philharmonic intends to reschedule these concerts when travel restrictions for project funders are resolved," it said without naming the funders and supporters who would be affected by the restrictions.

Washington and Havana have been at odds since Fidel Castro took control of Cuba 50 years ago in a revolution against a U.S.-backed dictator and steered the island toward communism.

Under a trade embargo enforced against Castro's government since 1962, Americans cannot spend dollars in Cuba without permission from the U.S. Treasury.

Obama eased sanctions this year by lifting restrictions on travel and cash remittances by Cuban Americans in a move to improve ties with Havana, though he has said the trade embargo will stay in place until Cuba undertakes democratic reforms.

When orchestra president Zarin Mehta met with Cuban officials and toured facilities in Havana in July, he said he expected the orchestra to be criticized if went ahead with a visit to the island 90 miles south of Florida.

When the orchestra performed in Pyongyang in February 2008, critics questioned the appropriateness of the visit to North Korea, whose government Washington considers one of the world's most repressive.

The orchestra opened its 2009/10 season in New York City on September 16 and its program includes tours of Asia and Europe with debut performances in Hanoi and Abu Dhabi. The orchestra has performed in at least 418 cities worldwide since 1930.

The New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842 by a group of local musicians and plays about 180 concerts a year. In late 2004, the philharmonic gave its concert number 14,000 -- a milestone unmatched by any other orchestra in the world.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, editing by Anthony Boadle)