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Cuban band evokes rage, nostalgia

Detractors and fans of the Cuban band Los Van Van had one thing in common Thursday in Tampa: powerful emotion.

Published June 27, 2003

[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
Andres Carvaja points across the street to fans of Los Van Van Thursday night at West Tampa Convention Center. About 60 protesters decried the Cuban band's performance.

TAMPA - Fidel Castro's henchmen, the midnight roundups, the firing squads, political prisoners wasting away in Cuban dungeons - these were the things the Los Van Van concert evoked for Margaret Rabeiro, watching through outraged tears Wednesday night as concertgoers cheerfully filled the community hall across Columbus Avenue.

Los Van Van has played Cuba literally for generations, a revolving troupe of expert musicians that Cuban exiles say feeds Castro's Communist regime with revenue and mutually beneficial endorsements. In Miami, a couple of thousand people turned out in 1999 to protest the group's appearance. It was canceled, with the help of city's mayor, a man of Cuban descent. Even after being moved to a private venue in Miami, it drew protests.

But in Tampa, Rabeiro was in the company of only about five dozen protesters, largely first-generation Americans with graying hair.

But the warm summer breeze refused to be still, and the protesters, with strong accents and stronger memories of Castro's oppression, were forced to rely more on venomous words than symbols.

"Communists!" they shouted, or worse.

At the entrance of the homey West Tampa Convention Center, a couple hundred people revved up to see the legendary group, and in their midst was one Pedro Faba.

On the pavement outside the dance hall, even before the band's first note, Faba seemed to float.

"This is my music, my country's music," he said over and over, touching his chest beneath his silky shirt and swaying back and forth, as though the words couldn't say what was deep in his heart.

"This is my music," said Faba, 39, a sanitation truck driver, underscoring every syllable.

Rolando Morales, standing next to him, scoffed at the suggestion that Los Van Van's success found its way to Castro's pockets. And anyway, he said, this wasn't a political rally.

"Music doesn't have borders or religion," said Morales, 36, a welding supervisor.

It was an echo of concert organizer Alex Gonzalez' sentiments.

"I don't think about that," Gonzalez had said earlier, when asked about the protesters who were expected to convene in the Eckerd Drugs parking lot across the street and make as much noise as a few dozen grandmothers and grandfathers could.

"I don't mix music with politics," Gonzalez said.

But for people like Rabeiro, everything Cuban is political. She held up her camcorder to see if she recognized any of the concert-goers as her neighbors.

She pointed to a stocky man in thick glasses who came by frequently to check on her, speaking only in Spanish.

"This man was a political prisoner for 18 years," she said, her lips quivering. "He was put on the firing wall. They used real bullets and they used blanks and you never knew," said Rabeiro, a medical clinic manager.

"He is my boyfriend."

Some cars slowed and honked in support. Others slowed to find a parking space so they could join the crowds inside.

A dozen Tampa police officers stationed on both sides of Columbus Avenue watched wearily, keeping the traffic moving, a barrier of another kind.

[Last modified June 27, 2003, 09:50:14]

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