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Embargo over Beethoven?

US blocks New York Philharmonic trip to Cuba, and cultural diplomacy stalls.

Music Director Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic during a rehearsal before their concert at the Seoul Arts Center, Feb. 28, 2008. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — Despite a recent thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the New York Philharmonic was reminded last week that it’s still easier for an American orchestra to play in nuclear-armed North Korea than in the long-estranged Caribbean island next door.

The Philharmonic announced Friday it had postponed a historic trip to Havana planned for later this month, after U.S. Treasury Department officials denied travel permission to the orchestra patrons who were financially supporting the performances. Though U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba generally prohibit Americans from traveling there, U.S. regulators had granted permission to musicians and orchestra staff, but they wouldn’t allow the orchestra’s patrons to go.

It would have been the most high-profile American cultural event in Cuba in a half-century. But without supporters, who were to cover the roughly $10,000 in travel costs per musician, “the trip is not possible,” orchestra spokesman Eric Latzky said in a statement.

The orchestra’s would-be Cuban hosts saw a spiteful double standard in this, since the Philharmonic and its patrons were allowed to travel to North Korea last year, and the orchestra’s current tour in Asia includes a stop in communist Vietnam later this month.

More broadly, the cancelled performances seemed to undercut the Obama administration’s recent support for concerts and cultural events as a path to improved bilateral relations. Was the Obama administration cooling down the musical diplomacy? Or was it simply a bureaucratic matter, and a temporary obstacle?

For Cubans who have a hard time believing a U.S. federal agency would act independently of the White House, the distinction didn’t seem to matter. Suddenly, the frustration and bitter rhetoric that characterized U.S.-Cuba relations during the Bush administration were back. "This shows that the U.S. government is the only party responsible for the failure of this major cultural project," said Cuban Institute of Music Vice President Alejandro Guma on an official government website, blaming Washington’s “irrational” Cuba policy.

"This is a project, by the way, that was not conceived by Cuba, but by the Philharmonic,” Guma added, describing efforts and preparations that had been completed in preparation for the performances, which have not been rescheduled. As if to highlight the sense of goodwill that had been thwarted by U.S. regulators, Guma said the performances were to include Cuban compositions, “whose scores were already in the hands of the American musicians.”

Cuban officials said the island would remain open to the Philharmonic. But the failure of such a high-profile cultural exchange threw cold water on what had been a period of unusually cordial relations, eased by music, between the U.S. and Cuba. Under the Bush administration, which took a more aggressive stance against the Castro government, travel regulations to Cuba were tightened for Americans, and top Cuban artists, like Grammy-winning jazz icon Chucho Valdes, were routinely denied U.S. visas.