Latin America

Buena Vista Social Club makes historic visit to the White House

Award-winning group plays for Obama a decade after members were denied US visas

Silvia Ayuso
The Buena Vista Social Club at the White House on Thursday.
The Buena Vista Social Club at the White House on Thursday.JONATHAN ERNST (REUTERS)

Omara Portuondo, now in her eighties, could never have dreamed that her international singing career would one day take her to the White House.

“Cuba, how beautiful is my Cuba,” she crooned Thursday night as she walked slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue after leaving what is known as the world’s most famous mansion. Smiling at reporters and onlookers, Portuondo appeared to be in something of a daze.

Buena Vista Social Club became the first Cuban group to play at the White House in more than half a century

It had been special night in history. Portuondo and the rest of the internationally acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club musicians and singers had become the first Cuban artists to play at the White House in more than half a century.

The invitation by President Barack Obama was another sign of the warming of relations between Washington and Havana, which officially just got underway earlier this year.

As Portuondo left the White House, group members Barbarito Torres and Jesús Agauje Ramos joked over whether they would be allowed to take a picture in front of the US president’s official residence without being scolded by the Secret Service.

They must have forgotten that just a few hours earlier President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were applauding them in the East Room before a number of guests who were invited to take part in a special Hispanic Heritage Month event.

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“I still can’t believe this,” said Barbarito Torres, adding that none of the members of the Buena Vista Social Club would have ever imagined performing at the White House

Torres, who, like the rest of the group, is old enough to remember when the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1960 following Fidel Castro’s rise to power, put aside decades of  political tensions and won over his guests with balmy Caribbean rhythms.

As they got on stage, Portuondo, Torres, Aguaje Ramos, along with Eñliades Ochoa and Manuel el Guajirio Mirabal – Buena Vista’s original members – immediately captured the attention of the entire East Room.

Chan Chan, Veinte Años, El Cuarto de Tula and Quizás – an original version of the old Cuban standard but mixed with English and Spanish – were some of the favorites played.

A few guests did dare to dance while others, such as White House aide Cecilia Muñoz just sang along.

Torres is old enough to remember when the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1960

The performance lasted only about 20 minutes, and many clamored in Spanish “otra, otra” (one more, one more) but Thursday night’s agenda was limited.

Obama, who wasn’t present for the entire performance, showed up late and got on stage where he personally thanked each group member for coming to the White House.

It was only just over a decade ago that the Buena Vista Social Club group members, including the late Ibrahim Ferrer, had been denied visas to enter the United States. It was also at the White House where a decision was made not to grant permission to the group so that members could pick up their Grammy in 1998.

The performance lasted only about 20 minutes and many clamored in Spanish ‘otra, otra

But that was all past history.

The opening of diplomatic relations, which was officially announced on December 17 by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, paved the way for this spectacular and historic event.

But as Torres explained, music has always served to bridge the gap of political differences. “Cultures always relate to one another,” he said.

Would he perform again for Obama? Of course, he said, but hopefully in Cuba, if and when the US president visits before he leaves office in 2017.

English version by Martín Delfín.

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