En Español

An interview with Bill Martinez, lawyer for Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez and countless other international artists.

The legendary Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez, now 63,  will perform Saturday in Oakland at the Paramount Theater after appearing last week in New York at Carnegie Hall. Known as the Bob Dylan of Cuba, Rodríguez  has been a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution and a leader of the nueva trova movement – a style of music that combines folk and traditional music with political lyrics. On this U.S. trip he noted an interest in repairing the relationship with the United States and acknowledged that the situation at home isn’t perfect. “There are a lot of things in Cuba that have aged and that need to be revitalized, but I prefer to criticize Cuban reality when I’m at home,” Rodríguez said in Spanish, as reported by the Latin American News Dispatch.

But at his Carnegie Hall concert a week ago, the New York Times noted in its review,  that although Cuba was hardly mentioned, the singer/songwriter kept politics in the mix by dedicating “Canción del Elegido (song of the Chosen One) to Cuban agents in prison here “for spying on right-wing Cuban- exile groups in Miami; In Cuba they are heroes.”

Rodríguez’s ability to get a visa marks a major shift from the Bush Administration’s approach toward the island. During his eight years in office, Cuban performers were routinely denied entry to the United States. Now, the door is opening again, partly due to the efforts of San Francisco native Bill Martinez.

Martínez,  an attorney, and occasional producer,  has been the go-to lawyer for getting U.S. visas for Cuban artists and musicians. He also helps secure licenses for American artists traveling to Cuba. Since the 1990s, the San Francisco native has helped hundreds of international artists and musicians like Rodriguez come to the United States, a process he sees as bridging the cultural gap between countries.

Growing up in the Excelsior District and graduating from USF and UC Hastings, Martínez started working as a lawyer in the ’70s at the Community Law Collective on 18th and Dolores.

How did you get involved with Cuban musical groups?

I became known as a Cuba guy ever since ’93, when I was one of the cofounders of something called Encuentro de Canto Popular, a new song festival, Nueva trova, which would be the equivalent of, the peace and love days, Woodstock and all that – using song to talk about social change.

We developed that festival in keeping with that tradition. Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes: these are all examples of what would be the equivalent of a Pete Seeger or a Woody Guthrie, where they use music and songs to influence social change.

In 1993, the Encuentra invited a Cuban group Mezcla to the festival. Two days before the tour was supposed to start, the state department notified me – at the San Francisco Bar Association where I was working.

‘We found your file Mr. Martinez, we know all about these guys, and they’re not coming in.’

‘What? This is two days before the tour, this is going to be a shock to everybody, can you give me something in writing, so I can tell the presenters?’

Dennis Hayes was the head of the Cuba desk in ’93, and Dennis Hayes says, ‘I don’t have to show you anything in writing. They’re Cubans and that’s all you need to know.’ And he hung up on me.

From that point on my life changed. I decided, we just can’t accept that answer, we deserve more.

We ended up doing the concert anyway, with local artists and Carlos Santana, and some of the members of his group in place of the group Mezcla. It was an incredible event. It was the first time they had anything Latin-related at Yerba Buena Theater.

Bill Martinez. Photo courtesy of Miriam Berkley.

Bill Martinez. Photo courtesy of Miriam Berkley.

How long have you been working in music?

My very first concert I helped on was in ’72. It was a concert that Marcos Gutierrez and others at USF and I did to raise scholarships for Latino students. Like a lot of these gigs, we didn’t end up raising that much money at the end, but we raised consciousness.

It was at the Kabuki Theater, at that time there was a club there, all local-based Latin rock groups – the first time the Kabuki had that type of event.

What happened during the Clinton era?

No approvals for ’93,’94 for Mezcla… We filed a federal lawsuit in ’93 after they denied us visas. While that federal lawsuit was pending, all that time, in that era, we kept pushing the envelope.

In ’94 or ’95 we got the timbales player from Los Van Van, Changuito, to come in and do workshops. Then, we did Iraquere West.

Iraquere is one of the famous legendary groups from Cuba. So, using Changuito as a wedge, four people from Iraquere were [brought to the United States and] matched with four local artists, John Santos, Armando Peraza, Negro Hernandez, and Santana .

So after that, Bill Graham productions brought in all of Iraquere. Once Iraquere was in, we thought, well, then let’s bring in Los Van Van. We didn’t just bring them in, there was somebody in New York, but we brought them to the west coast, and we had a great show at Maritime Hall. This was in ’97.

During that era, the Clinton administration, we could finally get anybody we wanted, Buena Vista Social Club, Orquesta Aragon, Cubanismo, it’s a long list…then the door started shutting when the Bush Administration came in…

Did you bring a lot of people to Cuba in the Clinton era?

With Music Bridges we brought 50 artists to Cuba in March 1999 during the Clinton Administration…including Jimmy Buffet, Bonny Raitt, Burt Bacharach, Peter Frampton, Gladys Knight, Lisa Loeb… It was a trip. At the same time they had the Baltimore Orioles playing the Cuban national team…Hollywood, baseball, music, what a time to be there.

What happened when the Bush Administration took office?

Up until 2004 it was informal, the blocking. But little by little it became more difficult. They did something in the system that was tantamount to a denial, the state would just not respond, it wasn’t death by denial but death by delay…

In February 5, 2004, the Buena Vista Social Club was waiting for their visas to attend the Grammy awards – they weren’t going to perform but they were going to attend, as any nominee, in case they received an award.

On February 5, the State Department sent a letter saying you’re hereby denied by executive order. We’re officially reversing the people to people policy of the Clinton administration and we’re returning to something called the Reagan proclamation. The Reagan proclamation – issued in 1985 – said that since all Cuban artists are either employees or agents of the Cuban government or are members of the Communist Party, they are ineligible for entry into the U.S. That existed during the Clinton administration, but during the Clinton administration they chose to waive that law.

Was the Reagan Proclamation law?

That was part of our Mezcla case, our Mezcla lawsuit [after being denied in ‘93]…

The attorney for the federal government was like Colombo. He had this raincoat. It looked like he purposely wrinkled it up before he came into the courtroom. He was real sloppy.

‘Your honor, they’re saying we can’t [forbid Mezcla’s visas through proclamation, said the federal attorney], but we have unfettered executive discretion and they can’t touch us.’ And the judge was like ‘grrr,’ and we were all like ‘grrrr,’ but he was right.

That in the interest of national security- and this was before 9-11 – they can always come back and use that hook…unfettered executive discretion…Every Cuban is going to be denied.

During that time the only thing that happened – there may have been some exceptions that I’m not aware of – there was one anomaly. We were able to secure a license [to travel to Cuba in 2004] for the rock group that had been called Rage Against the Machine.  [When Martínez got the license in 2004 the group was called Audioslave  and had a different singer].

How did you spin the petition to get Audioslave into Cuba?

I used [the government’s] words to get the licenses. As we say in the business, give them what they want.

[Roger] Noriega was behind-the-scene guy running Cuban policy for the Bush Administration. He said, our government’s policy is based on ‘hastening a transition to democracy.’ …it fits into a game plan where the U.S. says we wants to hasten the transition to democracy by creating an instability within the Cuban population. Let’s send a message the Cubans to say how much better it is in the U.S., how evil their country is, [according to Noriega].

Knowing that Noriega had said this speech about what we gotta to do with the hearts and minds of the Cuban population, what better way to get to the hearts and minds of the next generation but through rock music.

What’s happened since Obama’s taken office?

We put experimental cases into the system beginning around February 2009. We put in the application for the group Septeto Nacional. At the same time we put the applications for visas, we put in application for licenses for people to come to Cuba form the United States…we had a famous rock group which I can’t tell you about, because it’s still pending a year later, Yale alumni chorus which is still pending.

[Last year] the State Department wasn’t ready to approve yet, but we knew that they were going to start approving things because the atmosphere, the response that we were getting even just calling and hearing the voice on the other end, even getting someone on the other end was so different.

With the Bush Administration you’d get no answer, you’d get a machine, or you’d get ‘no, no, not here, blah blah blah, grr.’

This time under the Obama Administration, the people at the Cuba desk said, ‘we want to start approving things, but we’re reorganizing.’ Honestly I looked at the phone and thought I dialed the wrong number.

The first case the Treasury approved was for the New York Philharmonic [to travel to Cuba], so after that we knew that licenses were going to get approved.

But in the end [the New York Philharmonic] didn’t go because they saw that in their approval notice that patrons of the arts also wanted to travel. And they said, ‘hey, the artists can go, the producers can go, the technical staff can go, but not the patrons because they’re going to just hang around and do touristy things. We’re not allowing touristy things.’

So the key to get a license approve is to make sure and say that no one is going to have any fun. Then you get it approved.

So then I got Calle 13 [from Puerto Rico] approved…The Calle 13 group was supposed to perform in December but they didn’t get approval in time so they performed in March in Cuba.

What about Cuban musicians coming to United States after Obama’s come into office?

At the same time that we were putting the treasury department applications in we were putting a lot of visa applications…

And Pete Seeger’s birthday party?

Around the end of March, I see in the New York Times or something an article about Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday. It was going to be at Madison Square garden. It listed all these great artists that were going to be there: Bruce Springstein, Rage Against the Machine, all these guys were going to be there, but Silvio Rodríguez was listed as one of the performers.

And I said wow, this guy got through, how? So I called up the festival, and said, ‘hey, I’m Bill Martínez. I’ve been doing this work for a long time I have these test cases, Silvio’s going to be the first guy who got approved, how’d you do it?’ And he said ‘well, we’re just getting to the visa now.’ This is March, your gig’s in May, and you’re just getting started now?

They needed some help getting it through, so May fourth or fifth was Pete’s birthday, sold out show, 140 artists, all superstars were there at the party. Silvio did not get his visa in time. The visa was approved, but he got his security clearance about 10 days after Pete’s birthday [too late]…but the good news is we made a lot of contacts and we had a lot of communication with the State Department and the U.S. Interest Section, which is the equivalent of the consulate in Havana, since we don’t have to this day formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, there is no consulate.

I could see very clearly they’re going to approve these now…Septeto Nacional was approved, had a great show at Yoshi’s, five shows in four days, Silvio was approved, Charanga Habanera, Carlos Varela, Manolito Simonet y Su Trabuco, Mezcla – the group that got me into this in the beginning…

The only difference is, and the battle that we won’t be able to change until we get rid of the embargo…there’s still this extraordinary security clearance process that always causes a little bit of doubt…

It’s a drag they have to go through this extra security, that an artist from Ireland or any other Latin American country doesn’t have to go through. We still need to take on that delay. What’s the basis of the delay? Cuba’s still designated, crazily, illogically, unfairly, as a state sponsor of terror.

And you have to ask yourself when was the last time that Cuba threatened to bomb us or do anything to us? Never! It didn’t happen.

Can Cuban musicians be paid when they come to the States?

They get hotel, transportation, and per diem – food toiletries and things they need to get by on their visit – but they can’t get paid. CD sales are different, there’s an exception for royalties…

The law has always allowed for the distribution and sale of Cuban art and CDs and books here under the Berman Act.

Howard Berman has been a great leader in championing the rights of all artists, not just Cuban, that there should be no laws that restrict the free flow of information…The executive branch is constitutionally unable to restrict the free flow of information…

If the thing you bought and are attempting to bring into the U.S. – say you have a license to go to Cuba – the way to flag whether or not something is compliant or not is if it has writing on it…if a t-shirt has writing on it.

Where did you start out?

Actually I always wanted to be a lawyer, in grade school, at Luther Burbank, I remember to this day. When I used to play baseball, I thought, I think I want to be a lawyer; I want to fight for the people.

So the first place I went to look for work was the Community Law Collective at 18th and Dolores…

Around ’79 I went to the New College. I became the Dean of Admissions and an academic support person. Then I went from there to the Bar Association of San Francisco where I was there for ten years more or less helping to find pro bono attorneys for indigent people around the city, we helped thousands and thousands of folks to find lawyers. [Martinez was still helping to put on music at that time].

Around ’93, ’94, when things were getting hot with this Cuba stuff, I was getting calls from reporters, and I had to start to focus on this culture of exchange work…I left the bar association because I was getting distracted…I began to do just artists’ visas.

What other countries have you worked with?

Every country, just about. I do all the visas for the San Francisco International Arts Festival. In the most recent one there were artists from Syria, France, Russia, Japan. I’ve helped the Ballet of Russia, I’ve help mariachi groups.

How about Iran?

Iran, yeah. I don’t think I’ve done any artists from Greenland.

Most of it’s mechanical; you get the processes right, and you can get it done. The key [problem] is that, if the country they’re coming from is a state sponsor of terror. Another problem is if your name sounds like a conflict because it might be similar to someone else who is a terrorist. If you’re Mohammed somebody, you’re going to have more problems.

What extra steps do you have to take if you’re working with a state sponsor of terror country?

You have to dispel all these assumptions about what they’re going to be doing here. And since they’re state sponsors of terror, all I can do is continue to call or write or work with the local congressional office.

It’s not just filling the forms out?

Oh yeah. Most other attorney’s are not going take that on. I don’t bill the way other lawyers do…

You only work with artists?

I only do artists’ visas. Occasionally I help others. Or get licenses to travel to Cuba.

Did you ever feel at risk? Did anyone go after you or get annoyed with you?

Oh, all the time. Not so much now, but I get emails. Sometimes they wouldn’t send it directly to me but to others in the game. Including artists that I’d respect as artists but, as people, they are unfair. Paquito D’Rivera, a great Cuban artist, but he blasts the work that we do, saying ‘Oh, you guys are puppets for the system,’ without listening to our side, which is that culture is communication.

What happens when you have no communication, whether it’s a one-on-one relationship, a family relationship, employer-employee relationship. If you have no communication, all you have is rumor and bad feelings, and nothing gets fixed.