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Obama slaps ban on Irish musicians traveling to Cuba

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The Obama Administration has refused to allow Irish American traditional musicians (and Irish musicians resident in the US) to participate in the Second Annual Celtic Festival in Cuba, April 15-26.

The festival is being organized by Kilian Kennedy of Ireland who discovered during a vacation in Cuba a lively Celtic tradition sustained by immigrants and descendants from Gaelic provinces of northern Spain.  Last year, he arranged for musicians from Ireland and Canada to come to Cuba for a week of performances, workshops and seisiuns based in the lovingly restored Old Havana.  This year's festival is receiving support from Culture Ireland as well as Havana's Office of the Historian, Dr. Eusebeo Leal.

John McAuliff, who served in the 1980s as president of the Philadelphia Ceili Group and assistant editor of that city's monthly Irish Edition, applied for a license for traditional musicians from the US under the auspices of his 25 year old not-for-profit organization, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development of Dobbs Ferry, NY.  Initially the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department turned him down on the grounds he did not provide sufficient detail as required by 2004 guidelines. 

McAuliff provide the requested information, only to be informed on Thursday, barely a week before the Festival begins, that his application was "beyond the scope of what was authorized," citing again the 2004 guidelines. 

Although President Obama in principle opened the door to "purposeful travel" on January 14th, and new regulations were published in only two weeks, three months later OFAC has still not issued guidelines to implement them or issued any new licenses.  Programs for undergraduate and graduate students and religious organizations do not require a specific license, but artists, performers and people-to-people exchanges must still jump through OFAC hoops.

McAulif has written to Adam Szubin, the director of OFAC challenging the use of guidelines, "issued at the direction of President Bush in 2004 that were intended to destroy purposeful travel as a concession to his political supporters in Florida "  He asked, "How can Bush Administration criteria be relevant to implementation of the policy of President Obama who wants to do just the opposite, foster purposeful travel?"

McAuliff suspects that OFAC has its own bureaucratic agenda and has been under pressure from hard line Cuban Americans like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez who oppose even Obama's authorization in 2009 of unlimited family travel by Cuban Americans. 

Should OFAC reconsider at the last minute, McAuliff is not sure how many American musicians will still be able to arrange their schedules or raise the money to go.

Festival organizer Kilian Kennedy reports that, "The main societies with Celtic music are from Galicia and Asturias in Northern Spain. In Havana, the two largest societies are  the Agrupación Artística Gallega de La Habana and the Centro Asturiano de La Habana. Both of these societies have bands that play gaitas (bagpipes), drums, flutes and other Celtic instruments. They also have groups of dancers who wear traditional outfits when celebrating the music and dances of their ancestral Celtic homelands in Spain. These are not the only societies in Havana with Celtic origins - there are also the Monterroso y Antas de Ulla and the Rosalia de Castro Galician societies, all of whom performed at CeltFest Cuba 2010."

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