Los Munequitos de Matanzas, the world’s premier rumba troupe, come to town this weekend halfway through an extraordinary two-month national tour. This tour is the longest one made by a Cuban musical group since 1979, when the Carter administration was loosening the knot in relations with Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

Under the terms of a 31-year-old embargo against the island nation, the State Department doesn’t grant visas to well-known Cuban bands because their records and worldwide concert tours generate income for the Cuban government. The New York-based Dance Theater Workshop won Washington’s permission to sponsor Los Munequitos by having their visit labeled educational. The group can’t “perform” in the U.S. because performers engage in commerce. Instead, according to their visas, Los Munequitos give folkloric “lecture-demonstrations”–theatrical presentations on an aspect of Afro-Cuban culture known as “The Stories of the Gods” or Patakin, ten dances incorporating the prayers and rituals of the Yoruba people. Their Chicago appearances are part of the Dance Center of Columbia College’s New World/New Art ’92 festival, a three-week program showcasing the performing and visual arts of the Americas.

The Chicago leg of their trip, however, reflects a McCarthyite paranoia that casts a shadow on U.S./Cuban relations and, indirectly, on the Hispanic media. The anti-Castro segment of the Cuban-American population, which bitterly opposes any cultural exchange, is small yet influential, using its clout as advertisers in the Spanish-language media to boycott the Dance Center of Columbia College’s entire New World/New Art program. Most Spanish TV, radio, and press are not only ignoring the Cuban group, but they’re also failing to inform their audiences that leading Mexican and Argentine contemporary-dance troupes are in town.

The Mexican consulate is hosting a reception for the Mexican group Antares Danza Contemporanea and the Argentine consulate is doing the same for artistic compatriots El Descueve. However, the attendant publicity boost that usually surrounds such events is virtually absent from what ironically is the college’s first annual festival of the arts of the Western Hemisphere. “We’ll still get the audience, but we just have to work harder to get the word out because we don’t have the help of all the media vehicles,” says Julie Simpson, the Dance Center’s assistant director. “Everything is being clouded by Cuban politics.”

Two months ago, upon learning Los Munequitos would be available for New World/New Art, Simpson quickly invited them, though she couldn’t help but remember how politics poisoned the last attempt to bring Cuban musicians to town.

In 1989, Orquesta Aragon was scheduled to headline the first annual Viva! Chicago festival. Mayor Eugene Sawyer’s Office of Special Events made the choice knowing anti-Castro Cubans hadn’t complained when Cuba’s Arturo Sandoval and Irakere appeared in previous Jazz Festivals. The appearance of the island’s famous national orchestra in a Latino-oriented Grant Park event provoked a bitter reaction when Channel 44 general manager Jose Lamas informed fellow Cuban Americans of the city’s plans.

Viewing the sponsorship request as something like asking Holocaust victims to support a Nazi march through Skokie, Cuban businessmen who dominate the Hispanic market erupted in protest. Michael Scott, then the city’s special-events director, received anonymous death threats, but was more worried when Cuban liquor-store owners threatened to empty their shelves of Old Style beer. In response, G. Heilemann Brewing Company almost withdrew its $100,000 sponsorship pledge. The prospect of having to cancel the festival itself evaporated when Cuban exiles used their Washington clout to stop the issuance of visas.

Fearing a repeat of the Aragon controversy, Simpson called Jose Jorge, president of Chicago’s Cuban American Chamber of Commerce. “I didn’t ask for permission to invite Los Munequitos, I asked for his blessing,” Simpson said, naively hoping cultural goodwill could diffuse ideological ill will. “He was charming and cordial, but wanted to know if we could cancel the visit. I said yes, but we won’t.”

After talking to several of the chamber’s 300 members, Jorge called Simpson to say the group is “offended” the college would showcase Castro’s communist regime. Channels 44 and 26 refused to provide promotional help for the festival, as did the newspaper La Raza. WOJO Radio initially agreed to provide on-air advertising, but then, under pressure from Cuban advertisers, sought unsuccessfully to have its name removed from all festival advertising. Two smaller Mexican-oriented stations, WTAQ and WOPA, have been publicizing the events. Extra, the bilingual newspaper, is donating advertising but backed out of its initial offer to sponsor a welcoming reception.

Jorge said the Cuban chamber doesn’t meddle in politics, but he added that exile groups may show up at the various events to picket. “What bothers us is Columbia College using a group that works for Castro to promote one of the most oppressive countries in the world,” the Oak Park clothing and jewelry store owner said. “I’m sure it’ll be a beautiful show that leaves the impression everything in Cuba is normal. But it’s the reality of Cuba that upsets us.”

One of the most authentic expressions of African culture in the hemisphere, Los Munequitos are carrying traditions that slaves brought centuries ago during their forced migration from West Africa. Since arriving in the U.S. a month ago, they’ve danced, drummed, and sung before enthusiastic audiences on the east and west coasts starved for Cuban culture.

The troupe’s opening reception at a New York nightclub attracted almost every top musician who plays anything remotely Latin. The event was organized by Luaka Bop Records, which later this month releases Diablo al Infierno, the third in a series of compilations of Cuban music. Luaka Bop president Yale Evelev got money for the reception from Warner Brothers Records, but worried his sponsors might be disappointed that this percussion and dance group is too “arcane.” “But,” he added, “they were blown away and, of course, all the Latin people who were there went bananas.”

Los Munequitos play several variations of la rumba–the Afro-Cuban rhythm that has spawned such popular sounds as the mambo and salsa. But the rumba is more than music. Part religious ritual and part social gathering, it took root among African ethnic groups centuries ago and eventually permeated almost every segment of Cuban society. Formed in 1952, the troupe have developed their art in a tropical land where singing, dancing, and drumming have always shaped the way of life, no matter who runs things–Spain, the U.S., or the Soviet Union.

Last week the Cuban American Chamber of Commerce’s Jorge called Columbia’s Simpson to say the exile community intended to boycott every sponsor of the group’s tour nationwide. He again asked Simpson to cancel the troupe’s visit. “I said to him that this possibility is the only opportunity Chicago will ever have to see Los Munequitos,” she recalled. “This is a cultural and educational opportunity not to miss. The universities have been clamoring for them. I’ve gotten calls from U. of I., U. of C., and Loyola. Everybody wants them, even grammar schools. This is an educational gold mine. We’re not promoting Castro’s country, we’re promoting an important art form.”

Los Munequitos de Matanzas will give a percussion workshop at the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 1632 N. Milwaukee, at 4:30 PM on Sunday, November 8, and lecture-demonstrations at the Chicago Historical Society, 1600 N. Clark, at 8 PM Monday and Tuesday, November 9 and 10, and at DePaul University Concert Hall, 800 W. Belden, at 8 PM Wednesday, November 11. For more information or a full schedule of New World/New Art events see the dance listings in section two or call 271-7928.