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Corcoran Pulls the Plug on Cuba Night

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page C11

Amid questions about the propriety of the event, the Corcoran Gallery of Art yesterday abruptly postponed a cultural program it planned to sponsor next week in cooperation with Cuban diplomats.

"The timing two days after the Thanksgiving weekend is not optimum. We are postponing it," said Margaret Bergen, chief communications officer for the city's oldest private museum. Even though the Corcoran had sold only 41 tickets, the event drew the attention of the State Department and several groups who have been fighting the government of Fidel Castro and its policies. Among the questions raised were where the money would go and the appearance of being open-minded about conditions in a country in which poets and writers are jailed.

Dagoberto Rodriguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section, was to take part in the cultural event. (Charles Dharapak -- AP)

The program -- originally planned for Tuesday -- was billed as "An Evening at the Cuban Interests Section." Because the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Interests Section, at the Swiss Embassy downtown, serves as a de facto embassy. The announcement of the event reads: "Many of us are curious about the real Cuba and its people. This evening, at the elegant Cuban Interests Section, we have the opportunity to meet with the Chief of the Section, Dagoberto Rodriguez, to explore at first hand Cuba's position on U.S. and Cuban relations. We enjoy conversation, a film on Cuba's culture, and a Cuban reception in the grand ballroom."

After learning of the event, with tickets priced at $90 for the public and $70 for Corcoran members, a State Department official asked the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department to find out where the proceeds would go. The Corcoran received a call from the Treasury office yesterday, Bergen said, and the Corcoran told officials the event had been postponed. Bergen said the Corcoran and the Interests Section were not exchanging any funds.

The U.S. government was also concerned that events like the Corcoran's are not allowed in Cuba. "The Cuban government prohibits our cultural section from doing this. They threaten and cajole Cubans from participating in these events. Recently we tried to bring a bluegrass group to Cuba and they wouldn't give them visas," said a State Department official who deals with Latin America. The State Department has a long-standing policy of not allowing such officials to be named.

Discussions about Cuba should be encouraged, not avoided, an official at one humanitarian aid organization said yesterday. "In the matter of the United States and Cuba, there desperately needs to be sharing of information because the U.S. public in general is extremely ill-informed of Cuba," said the Rev. Lucius Walker Jr., the founder of Pastors for Peace, who said he wasn't speaking directly about the Corcoran flap. "The only way we have good, sound policy is to have clear information." Walker's organization has repeatedly denounced U.S. policy toward Cuba.

"It is an outrage for the Corcoran to lend its name" to this event, said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. "To my dismay, they are inviting folks to meet with the head of Castro's diplomatic mission to talk about the 'real' Cuba. He does not talk about the real Cuba. And then when I saw something about the 'elegant' room. This is at the same time as blackouts in Cuba and people don't have vegetables," said Calzon, a U.S.-educated political scientist. He said he sent a letter to David C. Levy, the Corcoran's president, objecting to the event but did not ask him to cancel it.

Artistic freedom was also a concern. Amnesty International, the human rights group, has objected to the imprisonment 18 months ago in Cuba of at least 75 people, many of them artists and writers, including the poet Raul Rivero Castaneda.

The controversy comes at a time when an administration that has advocated a hard line against Castro has won a second term and dissidents continue to express deep dissatisfaction with the Cuban government. Just last week a group of Cuban dancers and entertainers in Las Vegas asked for political asylum, a request that is now being processed.

Bergen said the Corcoran sponsors 130 public programs a year and about a dozen are held at embassies. The discussions don't discount politics, but politics aren't the primary focus, she said. "We are trying to have a dialogue about art."

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