Friday, November 25, 2005

Miami santero/drummer faces deportation

Originally published by Miami New Times 2005-09-29
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Exit Philbert
Immigration wants to deport a well-known santero/drummer over five stolen shirts
By Mariah Blake

Jonathan Postal
Armenteros ain't crooning at Krome

Who / What:
Philbert Armenteros
Three-year-old Jorge Armenteros giggles and shrieks as he patters around barefoot on the tile floor of a Burger King in Little Havana. His brother Eric, a lanky six-year-old, happily wolfs down Chicken Tenders. French fries are scattered on the table in front of him, and ketchup is smeared on his white tank top.

Neither of them, nor Jorge's twin sister Raquel, knows that their dad Philbert might never come home again. And their mom, Luz Preciado, wants it to stay that way. "I tell them that their dad went on a trip," she says. "I want them to keep the good image they have of him. He's their role model."

Philbert Armenteros is a singer and percussionist best known for his throbbing, hypnotic rhythms rooted in Afro-Cuban tradition. He has performed and recorded with internationally renowned acts such as Don Dinero and Yerba Buena. And his burly six-foot-three frame and gold-tooth smile are fixtures in Miami's Latin music scene, where he has played with numerous groups, among them Palo!, the Nag Champayons, and his own band, Aina.

Music is not only a job but also a form of worship for Armenteros, a Santería priest who has played regularly at drumming ceremonies, where he beckoned the gods to Earth with fierce batá rhythms.

Now Armenteros, who has a green card and has lived in the United States for more than a decade, has been detained by immigration officials and is facing deportation. The 28-year-old has been at the Krome Detention Center since this past August 10. The apparent reason: He pled guilty to stealing three polo shirts and a couple of sweater vests from a Dillard's department store more than seven years ago.

"It's really ridiculous," says Anna Bryant, who tends bar at Jazid, a hip South Beach club where Armenteros played regularly. "So many people who live in this country do much worse things and only get a slap on the wrist. If he leaves, we're losing a really amazing person and a great musician. And what for?"

Armenteros was born in late Seventies Havana and early on discovered his twin passions -- Santería and music. His family was made up of santeros, or Santería priests. And his great grandmother, Mercedes Alfredo, danced and sang with the well-known rumba group Clave y Guaguanco, as well on Radio Cadena Havana and at Santería ceremonies. She served as Armenteros's spiritual guide and taught him music and dance while he was still a toddler. By age five, he was performing at ceremonies and festivals. He continued to drum and sing his way through Cuba until moving to Miami eleven years ago.

Almost as soon as he arrived here, Armenteros began getting into trouble. In December 1995, police picked him up for shoplifting, but the charges were eventually dropped. Seven months later, police charged him with possession of one joint and a small package of cocaine, according to court documents. This time he was released without a trial on the condition that he complete a drug treatment program, which he eventually did.

For a while Armenteros steered clear of the law. Then, on January 16, 1998, he walked into a Dillard's department store in Broward toting a gift box covered in green Christmas wrapping. The box had a slit on one side, and Armenteros shoved three polo shirts and two sweater vests, valued at $365, into it. He then attempted to leave, but an officer nabbed him outside the store. In March of that year, Armenteros pled guilty to grand theft and received three years' probation. Grand theft is considered an aggravated felony, a deportable offense, according to a 1996 federal law.

Homeland Security spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez wouldn't specify why Armenteros has been detained, but Preciado says it's because of the Dillard's incident.

In August 1998, Armenteros was arrested again for violating probation by smoking marijuana and failing to pay fines. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail. During this turbulent period, Armenteros met Preciado at a Santería drumming ceremony in Naples, Florida. She was seventeen years old and pretty, with soft, almond-shape eyes and a smattering of freckles sprinkled across her round face. "We started talking, and we hit it off right away," Preciado says. Within months, she was pregnant. And in July 1999, when Armenteros was 21 years old, their eldest son, Eric, arrived. In August 2002, Preciado gave birth again, this time to the twins, Jorge and Raquel.

For the first five years, the couple's relationship was bumpy, but Preciado says Armenteros was always a deeply devoted father. There were no new criminal charges, and his musical career flourished. He also began helping to organize music showcases, such as the Afro Roots World Music Festival, and became involved in projects to educate people about traditional Cuban music and culture, particularly his religion, Santería. He wrote regularly for, an online Santería magazine, and he recently made a presentation at Florida International University. "His goal is to dissolve fear," says José Elias, who plays guitar in Armenteros's band.

Armenteros began teaching his own children Afro-Cuban music and dance while they were still in diapers, and took them to Cuba to be initiated as santeros when Eric was three and the twins were five months old. He returned to Cuba with the children in May 2004 for ritual animal sacrifices, which he believed would protect them. During the trip, Preciado says, thieves broke into Armenteros's rental car and snatched his Sony digital camera along with his passport and green card.

When he returned to the United States, Armenteros was issued a temporary green card, which was good for only one year. In late June of this year -- less than two months before he was detained -- he bought a three-bedroom house on NW 56th Street near Eighteenth Avenue for his family. Around the same time, his band, Aina, found a weekly gig at Jazid. Employees there describe Armenteros as a sort of gentle giant. "He's a great big guy with almost frighteningly large hands," says bartender Anna Bryant. "But he's always smiling and polite, and he never drinks."

On August 10, Armenteros went to an Immigration Services office to renew the temporary green card, according to Preciado. That's when he was detained. Hours later, he called Preciado and told her, but she didn't believe him. "I thought it was a joke," she says. "He told me he was serious, and I burst into tears. But I still didn't believe it was really true."

Soon, Preciado says, she was flooded with phone calls from Armenteros's fans and fellow musicians, some of them strangers, offering help. Many who had hired him to play at Santería drumming rituals offered to postpone their events until Armenteros was free. Aina continues to play its weekly Jazid gig but has drawn sparser crowds.

Armenteros's fate remains an open question. His first deportation hearing, held September 22, was inconclusive. It's unclear what will happen if the judge rules against Armenteros, since the United States rarely deports people to Cuba.

Meanwhile, Armenteros missed the twins' birthday August 24. Preciado is struggling to keep the family afloat while holding down a job as a receptionist. Finances are tight. And she says all of the children have begun wetting their beds again. "Everybody makes mistakes," Preciado remarks wearily. "Philbert's paying for his. But it's not just consequences for him. It's a consequence for everyone."

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Latest Cuba Census Reports 11.2M Residents

By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press WriterSat Nov 12, 6:13 PM ET

Cuba is home to some 11.2 million residents, three-quarters of whom live in urban areas, according to the communist island's third census since the 1959 revolution that launched Fidel Castro to power.

The census, taken three years ago and presented to officials this week, showed Cuba's population grew by almost 1.5 million since the last census in 1981, according to the Communist Party daily Granma.

It was not clear why it took three years to report the data compiled in September 2002.

The average age of Cubans is 35, though nearly 15 percent of the population is aged 60 or older, state-run newspapers reported Saturday, citing the census results.

The population is split equally by gender, but Juan Carlos Alfonso, who directed the census, predicted that women will be the majority on the island within a few years, according to Juventud Rebelde, Cuba's communist youth newspaper.

An increasing number of Cubans are of mixed ethnicities, with a quarter classified as mestizo in the survey.

There is electricity in about 95 percent of all homes, while 96 percent of households have cooking facilities. The census found there are slightly more than three people per household on the island.

News reports showed that nearly all Cubans took part in the census survey, put together and processed by about 95,000 workers. A digital version of the results was distributed to Cuban ministers and government organizations.

Prize-Winning Cuban Scientist Denied Visa

Prize-Winning Cuban Scientist Denied Visa

By ANITA SNOW, Associated Press WriterSat Nov 12, 6:57 AM ET

A Cuban scientist who helped develop a low-cost synthetic vaccine that prevents meningitis and pneumonia in small children says he was offended the U.S. government denied his request to travel to the United States to receive an award.

Vicente Verez-Bencomo was to accept the award recognizing his team's technological achievement during a Wednesday ceremony at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif. He had also been invited to address a gathering of the Society for Glycobiology in Boston on Friday.

Verez-Bencomo said the State Department denied him a visa because the visit would be "detrimental to the interests of the United States."

"That is really offensive to me," the chemical engineer told The Associated Press as he sat on a stool inside the University of Havana's Synthetic Antigens Laboratory, where the vaccine was developed. "It's really a shame."

The State Department said it has a policy prohibiting comment on individual visa cases. The switchboard rang unanswered at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which evidently was closed Friday for Veterans Day.

"It's incomprehensible that a civilized nation can confuse someone who has dedicated his life to saving the lives of children with someone who goes against the interests of the United States," Verez-Bencomo said with a sigh. "I wasn't going there to talk about politics, I was going to talk about science."

Verez-Bencomo led a team that developed a vaccine for Haemophilus influenza type B, also known as Hib, a bacteria that causes meningitis and pneumonia. The diseases kill up to 700,000 children worldwide each year.

Before the development of a similar vaccine more than a decade ago, Hib was the biggest cause of meningitis among infants in the United States. That earlier vaccine has all but stamped out the disease in the western world, but mass immunizations are too expensive for many poor countries.

The synthetic vaccine created by Verez-Bencomo's team can be produced at a relatively low cost because antigens don't have to be grown in a bacterial culture, making it an attractive alternative for poorer nations.

So far more than 1 million doses have been administered to Cubans. Science Magazine last month said the vaccine "may someday save millions of lives."

Officials at the San Jose Tech Museum were disappointed the government blocked Verez-Bencomo's trip.

The museum organizes the award ceremony every year to recognize individuals or groups who use technology to improve the environment, economy, education, equality and health.

"We recognized them for cutting-edge technology and wish he could be here to accept this," museum spokesman Tony Santos said. "We wish that hadn't been the government's decision."

An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News also expressed disappointment.

"Verez-Bencomo won't be here to receive the award," it said, "because he's from Cuba. He's a scientist, not a terrorist, but our State Department nevertheless denies him entry. He brings ideas, not bombs, but we let ideology trump innovation."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This year's embargo vote

Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Nov. 09, 2005

Again, U.N. vote urges end to Cuba embargo
For the 14th straight year, the U.N. General Assembly called on the United States to end its trade embargo against Cuba. Cuban officials hailed the 182-4 vote but knew it would be ignored.
Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly urged the United States on Tuesday to end its 44-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, a call U.S. Ambassador John Bolton dismissed as ``a complete exercise in irrelevancy.''

It was the 14th straight year that the 191-member world body approved a resolution calling for the U.S. economic and commercial embargo against Cuba to be repealed ``as soon as possible.''

The vote was 182-4, with 1 abstention, a higher ''yes'' vote than last year's vote of 179-4 with 1 abstention. Many delegates in the General Assembly hall burst into applause when the result was flashed on an electronic screen.

The United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voted against the resolution, while Micronesia abstained. Four countries did not indicate any position at all -- El Salvador, Iraq, Morocco and Nicaragua.


The resolution is not legally binding, and Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque noted that the U.S. government has ignored it for the past 13 years. But he said that that didn't diminish ``the legal, political, moral and ethical importance of this vote.''

In Cuba, hundreds of government supporters in Havana's convention center shouted in glee and jumped up and down when the result was announced. State-run television showed high-ranking officials among those gathered to await the news, but Cuban President Fidel Castro did not appear to be there.

Bolton chose to attend a Security Council meeting to vote on an Iraq resolution rather than the General Assembly vote on Cuba.

Cuba launched a broad public relations campaign drawing attention to its complaints against the embargo, and speaker after speaker in the General Assembly debate opposed the U.S. sanctions imposed after Castro defeated the CIA-backed assault at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.


The embargo, aimed at toppling Castro's socialist system, has been steadily tightened under President Bush's two terms. Pérez Roque said ''most likely'' Bush would tighten the blockade even further.

''Never before, as in the last 18 months, was the blockade enforced with so much viciousness and brutality. Never before had we seen so cruel and relentless a persecution by a U.S. administration against the economy and the right of the Cubans to a dignified and decent life,'' the Cuban minister said.

But Pérez Roque stressed that ``the U.S. government is delusional with the idea that it can overthrow the Cuban revolution.''

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

11 Cuban singers defect

Posted on Wed, Nov. 02, 2005

11 Cuban singers defect
Cuba's National Choir is 11 members short: they defected last week in Canada.

The Cuban National Choir is missing a couple of baritones and is particularly light on bass singers after 11 of its 40 members defected last week in Toronto midway through a Canadian tour.

The desertions decimated the island's flagship choir, but -- as they say in that business -- the show did go on. Somewhat altered concerts continued last week to standing ovations.

''I got a call last Monday at 8:15, saying 11 singers were not at the airport. They had developed a reputation for not showing up for buses on time, so I thought they just missed the bus,'' said Robert Missen, the Canadian agent who organized the tour. 'The tour manager said, `No, Bob. They're not here. They defected.' ''

The defections took place after a concert in Toronto on Oct. 24, the night before the rest of the group flew to British Columbia for more shows. The first few had clearly planned the defections in advance. Others jumped ship when they saw their colleagues walking out of the hotel, bags in hand.

''We sent a car over to the hotel to pick them up,'' said poet Ismael Sambra, president of the Cuban-Canadian Foundation. ``Then we realized that wasn't enough. We had to send another car, a bigger one.''

Sambra said in fact there had been ''up to 20 defections'' but that some singers who went back to the hotel for luggage were detained by Cuban security -- an allegation Missen flatly denies.

''Whether it was 11, 15 or 20, it was a massive desertion,'' Sambra said. ``It was a blow to the dictator.''

Sambra said the singers sought refuge at the homes of various Cuban exiles in Toronto. The Globe and Mail newspaper said six are already in the United States with relatives.

Immigration officials in Miami said they had not heard of the case, and Cuban-American National Foundation director Alfredo Mesa said he hasn't heard from the defectors. A Canadian immigration service spokeswoman said she could not comment.

After a publicity blitz in Canada, the singers stopped talking publicly for fear of reprisals to their families, Sambra said. ''It is hard to choose between your freedom and your family,'' baritone Ernesto Cendoya-Sotomayor told the Globe and Mail. ``But this was my one opportunity to escape.''

He said he had a wife and 4-year-old daughter in Cuba.

''Cuban police will probably tell my family I am a traitor to the revolution,'' he told another Canadian paper.

It was Canada's largest defection of Cubans since 2002, when 24 who visited Toronto for World Youth Day sought asylum.

Founded by Argentine-born guerrilla Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara, the Cuban National Choir started in 1959 as an army choir.

Two more concerts are scheduled this week before the group goes home . It took Missen a year of red tape to organize the tour. After two trips to Havana, he suspected some of the singers might stay behind. But he had his hopes. 'I thought, `Please let them wait until the end of the tour.' '' Missen said.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More Cubans leaving for U.S.

Posted on Tue, Nov. 01, 2005 Miami Herald

More Cubans leaving for U.S.
The latest figures from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Border Patrol show a sharp increase in the number of Cubans leaving their country.

The number of Cubans leaving their homeland by sea in illegal attempts to reach the United States has increased sharply.

According to the most recent figures from the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol, the number of Cuban migrants stopped at sea so far this year is nearly double the number intercepted last year.

The number of Cubans who made it to shore in the last 12 months is almost triple the number who reached U.S. soil during the prior 12-month period.

Though landings and interceptions are up, American officials say the figures do not portend an exodus comparable to the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when 125,000 Cubans reached South Florida or the rafter crisis in 1994 when more than 37,000 Cubans made it to the United States.

''Mariel, that was an exodus, and the rafters in 1994, that was an exodus,'' said Luis Díaz, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Miami. ``What is happening now is not an exodus.''

According to figures posted on the Coast Guard's Internet website, 2,368 Cuban migrants have been intercepted at sea so far this year -- compared to 1,499 in all of 2004. The number stopped at sea so far this year is the highest for a single year since the 1994 rafter crisis.

Meanwhile, the number of Cubans who reached South Florida during the 12-month period ending Sept. 30 hit 2,530 -- compared to 955 during the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2004.

State Department officials have accused Cuban authorities of encouraging illegal migration by not doing enough to prevent departures.

Cuban officials, in turn, have accused Washington of encouraging illegal departures through its controversial ''wet foot, dry foot'' policy.

The policy, set up after the rafter exodus, generally allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay while most of those intercepted at sea are returned home.

National media attention recently focused on the policy after 6-year-old Julián Villasuso drowned Oct. 13 when a suspected migrant smuggling speedboat turned over in the Florida Straits as it fled the Coast Guard.

The child's death sparked renewed calls by Cuban-American leaders for the U.S. government to scrap the wet foot-dry foot policy.

Many of those leaders prefer the old policy, when the Coast Guard rescued Cuban migrants at sea and brought them to U.S. soil.

The Coast Guard, for its part, is urging potential Cuban migrants to stop fleeing by sea.

''What we'd like to see is people apply for visas,'' said Díaz, the Coast Guard spokesman. ``It may take some time, but you arrive safe and alive.''