The Washington Post
July 27, 1998; Page D01

                  Well-Versed in Exile
               Cuban Emigre Bobby Jimenez Was a Famous Singer.
               Until The Castro Government Decided He Shouldn't Be.

                  By Nicholas Day

                  If you saw him -- puff-haired, plump, polite -- in customer service at
                  Hechinger in Tenleytown, you wouldn't know about it, of course. You
                  wouldn't know about that horrible Havana winter of 1984.

                  He was a singer, but he was barred from performing. He was married, but
                  he was alone.

                  "The problem is, I was honest," he says. "I wasn't hypocritical. They
                  sometimes said, 'If you were a little wise, you could be higher than where
                  you are.' "

                  He'd performed in the best nightclubs and restaurants in Havana. But he'd
                  been prohibited from public appearances since 1981, a punishment for
                  asking permission to leave the island.

                  "Years of my life without any reason."

                  In a desperate attempt to get him out, his longtime Belgian fiancee flew to
                  Cuba and they hastily married. Then she left and he stayed. It wasn't his

                  You wouldn't know that his story isn't singular but plural. That his past, like
                  a sort of tropical telescope, could magnify the many unseen, and upsetting,
                  stories of other Cubans.

                  Your only clue to anything, if you were lucky, was that you could hear him
                  singing -- not under his breath, but louder, because there was no one telling
                  him not to -- in Spanish, right there next to Hechinger's toilet display.

                  He'll be recording his second album soon. He's got to practice.

                  "It's very strange, my story," Bobby Jimenez says. Incredibly, that
                  otherworldly story does not seem to have entangled him in embitterment.
                  He's soft-spoken and reserved. But he has many reasons not to be.

                  "It's a long story. It's like a movie story, you know."

                  It opens in 1958, a year before the revolution, 20 years after Jimenez was
                  born, in the basement of a building across from the Havana Hilton. It's the
                  basement where Jimenez performed in public for the first time. He sang
                  "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" in a talent show and was hired
                  immediately to perform at Curly's Flamingo Bar-Nite Club -- a name that
                  hints at all the flamboyance of '50s pre-Castro Cuba. It was a time when
                  Cuba looked to the West, not the East, and foreign-financed development
                  was raging, often at the expense of the poorest Cubans. The insatiable
                  tourist trade demanded handsome, talented, English-speaking singers. It
                  was as if Jimenez, who grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole
                  and "Your Hit Parade," was answering a personal ad.

                  Like Cuban boys on sandlots looking to baseball for the future, Jimenez
                  always looked to music -- and, like those dusty kids, always to the United
                  States. During those first few years, he had increasing success, singing not
                  just in clubs, but on television as well. The '59 revolution -- which radically
                  restructured society and, a few years afterward, erased U.S.-based
                  tourism -- didn't affect his career immediately. He was named "best new
                  artist" in 1963 by a Cuban newspaper. He eventually would appear at all
                  the great and glorious Havana clubs: the Capri Hotel, Havana Riviera,
                  National Hotel Casino Parisien, Havana Hotel -- smack across the street
                  from the basement where he began. He sang in the swankest place in
                  Havana, the Tropicana. If you lived in Havana then, and you had not heard
                  of Jimenez, someone else you knew would have.

                  Jimenez was not a revolutionary. He was not a counterrevolutionary, either
                  -- not that it mattered. To the Castro regime, you were either with the
                  revolution or against it. The national tourism bureau, INIT, controlled the
                  schedules of the artists -- setting dates, places, pay -- and the officials
                  began to get antsy about Jimenez. He was asked to use "Roberto" instead
                  of "Bobby" -- "it was too Yankee, they said." And Jimenez, who sang in
                  English, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, was told "to be careful
                  about those American songs." He ignored both suggestions. Then,
                  suddenly, an apparent punishment came down, a giant foot crushing a
                  budding career: a total ban from radio or television. "They never explained
                  the reason," he says.

                  He's stopped trying to explain Cuba -- the theater of the absurd, he calls it.
                  "If you know Ionesco, you know Cuba."

                  He describes the period, with remarkable fortitude, as "just singing in some
                  places and that's all." Shuffling through tattered papers from the time, he
                  mutters, "Que barbaridad" -- Good Lord, what a shame.

                  Jimenez signed contracts to sing at clubs in Mexico and Canada but never
                  got off the island. In the most galling incident, Alex Cardini, the owner of a
                  Mexican club called Cardini's -- where Sinatra was then performing --
                  came to Cuba to recruit Jimenez. "He said, 'I need someone different for
                  the people, a different artist, someone unknown.' " Jimenez said he would
                  be denied permission. "Why are you so pessimistic?" asked Cardini. "I'm
                  not pessimistic," Jimenez answered. He was realistic. He never got to

                  He was like a dog. That's how he terms it. "Listen. You have a dog, you
                  put your string to the dog and the beautiful dog, he runs and he plays. Oh,
                  what a beautiful dog!" His voice is high with mockery. "But if he wants to
                  go there, he can't! Because he has a string. You understand? Up to a
                  certain point. No more."

                  Bobby Jimenez's story is about more than a might-have-been-famous
                  singer's frustrated career. It's about the choices that Cubans, artists or not,
                  have been making for the last 40 years.

                  To illuminate such choices, it's instructive to look at Jimenez's former
                  friendship with Pablo Milanes, the world-famous Cuban revolutionary folk
                  singer. What happened to their friendship is "normal," according to

                  Years ago, Milanes was, Jimenez says, like "my younger brother. He lived
                  in my home and he used to sleep in my own bed like brothers together."

                  Their break came after Milanes was released from prison in the '60s. He'd
                  been put there by Castro for "anti-revolutionary" activities. "I think -- and
                  I'm not sure of this, because after that I didn't see any more of Pablo --
                  that among the things they told him was that he had to stop being friends
                  with me. From that time on, Pablo was never at my house again."

                  Now Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez, who also was imprisoned and then
                  released, are the voices of the revolution -- stunningly beautiful voices,
                  extraordinarily talented composers. Castro has said, "The success of Silvio
                  and Pablo is the success of the revolution."

                  There's the abrupt annulment of a friendship. There's the transformation of
                  anti-revolutionary prisoners into revolutionary heroes. There's the choice
                  that each man made.

                  As an artist in Cuba, by all accounts, you capitulated, compromised, lied
                  or were shut out. That's what these lives suggest. That's why the view from
                  Bobby Jimenez's apartment on Wisconsin Avenue is of the street, not the

                  The story of Bobby Jimenez and Pablo Milanes is of lives determined not
                  just by talent and fortune. Perhaps the choices that they made were morally
                  loaded. Perhaps they were not really choices at all.

                  Perhaps only Cubans, those who've experienced it, can understand, can

                  Bibiana Borroto, who brilliantly accompanies Jimenez on guitar on his
                  recent recording, immigrated to Miami a decade ago. Her father was a
                  political prisoner for five years in Cuba, and because of that her future as a
                  classical guitarist was stymied. But like Jimenez, she is not mired in
                  resentment. On the subject of Milanes and Rodriguez she says: "They just
                  gave up. I don't think they wanted to leave Cuba. I'm not trying to say that
                  they weren't good.

                  "Everybody has the right to do whatever they want."

                  Jimenez finally got back on radio and television in the '70s -- just as
                  mysteriously as he'd been taken off. He was relegated to second-rate clubs
                  and shows, beginner stuff. Never the good stuff.

                  He cut a handful of 45s, contributed songs to a couple of full-length
                  compilations but couldn't buy copies of any; his records were sold only in
                  stores for foreigners and tourists. He tried to buy one once but it was
                  snatched away by the store owner. "I asked him, 'Did you see who's this?
                  That's me!' " It didn't matter.

                  The only 45 he has was a present from a friend who bought it in Moscow.

                  He was itching to get out. But he says he refused to flee illegally and he
                  refused to lie to gain the trust of the government. "I said, 'If I go, everyone
                  will know that I am leaving.' "

                  Enter Francoise Joris, an official at the Belgian Embassy in Havana, who
                  met Jimenez at a party in 1978, a year after she arrived in Cuba. They
                  were engaged within two years. She left Cuba in 1981 -- transferred out.
                  So he asked the Cuban government for permission to leave, too.

                  He was stripped of his profession -- prohibited from singing, from
                  appearing on television and radio, from everything. He was sent to the
                  national tourism bureau, INIT -- his employer for more than two decades
                  -- to clean the restrooms. "Like an example for the other artists." He
                  refused. In a sense, he did not exist in Cuba anymore; he had essentially
                  left the country. Problem was, he was still there.

                  Then Jimenez had an epiphany of sorts: "I was desperate, because I was
                  waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing happened, so I wrote a letter
                  to the queen." The Queen of Belgium, that is. Queen Fabiola.

                  Remarkably, he received a response. His situation was intriguing, the letter
                  read, and they would do their best. The Belgian ambassador promised

                  Hoping that a legal bond would help spring Jimenez, Joris flew back to
                  Cuba in December 1983. In that Cuban winter both horrible and
                  wonderful, they were wed. Then she left, on orders from the Cuban
                  government. "They told me I could go with her. They promised."

                  January passed. February, March. One day in April, of that sweet, sweet
                  spring of 1984, he got the word: Free to leave. He was at the airport the
                  following day in a shirt and a tie, carrying a suitcase.

                  The shirt and the tie were mandatory: Cuban citizens had to look
                  respectable arriving in a foreign country. The suitcase was mandatory:
                  Cuban citizens could not look as if they had left the country with nothing.
                  Although they had. That suitcase was empty. Everything Jimenez now has
                  of his life in Cuba had been smuggled out by Joris in the years before.

                  On the flight, a stranger, who knew that a fleeing Cuban was a penniless
                  Cuban, bought him a beer.

                  Sometimes Jimenez wonders if there's any record of him back in Cuba.

                  Used to be, when you left Cuba, you disappeared from Cuban history. In
                  effect, you had never been there. You ceased to exist.

                  For a singer, that meant your name was erased from your albums. "The
                  people who were born when I left, they don't know anything about me,"
                  Jimenez says. He fears that someday he'll find a record of his labeled "artist

                  Over the last decade, however, policies have changed. The Cuban
                  government has realized that it may not be advantageous to deny Cuban
                  heritage to those who bring fame to the country. For instance, Celia Cruz,
                  a prominent exiled anti-Castro singer, is now called a Cuban musician and
                  her work is sold in Havana. There is increasing cultural exchange between
                  the United States and Cuba, slipping its way around the embargo. This
                  year, an ad hoc group of older Cuban musicians -- all of whom still live in
                  Cuba -- called Buena Vista Social Club won a Grammy Award for their
                  eponymous album, produced by an American for an American label.
                  Earlier this month, they performed to a sold-out Carnegie Hall.

                  To Cuban Americans who left in desperation and despair, the message
                  now being preached by the regime is of forgiveness. Come back, come

                  All of which would seem to change Jimenez's situation -- essentially an
                  exile's situation. Or maybe, from his perspective, it doesn't change it at all.

                  "When you go from Cuba, you are worse than a murderer in that time,"
                  says Jimenez, speaking of when he left. "Now I'm not a traitor, nor a
                  gusano, a worm. Now I'm a Cuban, like those that are there. We're all the
                  same, like brothers."

                  He doesn't think he'll return. His father died nine years ago, his mother 20.
                  He has got only a few uncles left. What's the point? he asks. "Almost
                  everyone is dead. Forever."

                  After a year in Switzerland, where Joris was working at the Belgian
                  Embassy, Jimenez found himself in Miami. He'd been invited to sing at a
                  concert. Little Havana. How could he not go?

                  "When I came, I said, 'I stay.' "

                  He was expecting a lot from Miami. Like many Cuban emigres, he went
                  there with vague hopes -- a feeling, yet again, that something was coming,
                  something good. He found a community caught up in infighting. He found
                  that of all the things they could not take away from him in Cuba, they did
                  manage to take one thing away: youth.

                  "Maybe I was dreaming but I thought that Miami could be the place to
                  start again, but maybe it was too late," he says.

                  "I was disappointed; I felt cheated. It was so different. The Cubans don't
                  seem Cuban. There's a lot of fighting. There's fighting with those who come
                  from Cuba and with everything that happens in Cuba -- fighting, fighting,
                  fighting, all the time. I can't live like that."

                  He and his wife got by. She did "this and that." He "worked in different
                  places" that mostly did not pay. He sang on television programs for free to
                  get exposure. He was paid for club shows with checks on accounts that
                  were empty. He worked in a shoe store.

                  If nothing was happening in Miami, nothing might as well be happening in
                  Washington, especially when his wife got a job at the Belgian Embassy.
                  They moved almost a decade ago. Then something happened.

                  Natalia Rodriguez, owner and founder of Elan records, a classical music
                  label in Riverdale, about hearing Jimenez and guitarist Borroto together for
                  the first time: "It just blew our mind. It gets to you. It gets to your soul. You
                  can't forget it." About the emotional impact: "Older generations of Cubans
                  just cry when they hear these songs. They have a stomach knot of

                  The album's birth was a connect-the-dots of Washington's small,
                  fragmented Cuban community: Jimenez came in contact with Borroto
                  through mutual friends. Borroto's husband, Ruben Pelaez, studied classical
                  piano with Cuban-born Santiago Rodriguez at the University of Maryland.
                  Rodriguez's wife, Natalia, heads Elan, which was interested in producing a
                  series on Cuban music.

                  "Alma Cubana: A Collection of Popular Cuban Songs" is immaculately
                  recorded -- in 20-bit sound, nearly the highest quality available -- and will
                  receive international distribution. It is an outstanding newly released album
                  of songs by Cuban composers -- including a century-old slave song, an art
                  fast fading.

                  Jimenez hasn't done much work around town. It's something he seems
                  resigned to. He was gigging at a place in the Georgetown Park mall before
                  it turned into a toy store. He's sung in a few shows at Mount Vernon
                  College. He and Borroto recently performed at Habana Village, a Cuban
                  restaurant in Adams-Morgan. The owner, Eduardo Varada, grew up in
                  Jimenez's Havana neighborhood and had seen him on Cuban television.

                  A few weekends ago over dinner, Jimenez and Natalia Rodriguez agreed
                  to produce a second album of popular songs on the Elan label. He's happy
                  about it. He still has a way with those songs -- he shakes tears out of the
                  ballads -- and there's always the chance that the album will lead to
                  something else. He's always dreamed of Broadway.

                  He seems at ease. Occasionally when he talks of injustice, he betrays
                  himself: His eyes go fierce and his voice snaps, but it passes. He possesses
                  something -- a gift -- that got him through it all; in a sense, it's what started
                  it, too.

                  "I am a singer until I die," he says simply. "I can't help it. That's why I exist.
                  Because if I think of everything that I have that I could have better, I would
                  be crazy now, okay?"

                  In the Northwest Washington Hechinger he works in customer service. He
                  shows people around the store. Sometimes he's a greeter. Sometimes he
                  helps customers carry purchases to their cars. Sometimes he hails cabs.
                  Those sorts of things.

                  He's the language expert. In addition to Spanish and English, he's fluent in
                  French and muddles about in Portuguese and Italian. Useful skills in

                  Just so all the Latinos know -- in case they don't hear him singing -- he
                  wears a button, smack on his chest. It reads, Hablo Espanol.