Three Cubans and a Scam Artist

Yusimí Rodriguez

Rosie Gordon Wallace at the event in Southampton. Behind her a painting by Yasser Castellano.

HAVANA TIMES – About a year ago, I wondered how foreigners see me. Now I think I have the answer: We are the perfect candidates for a scam.

We are so hungry for opportunities that only foreigners can offer that we do not stop to calculate the risks involved when it comes to negotiating with them. Here we often say nothing ventured nothing gained. And so we take the risk of jumping off a ten meter springboard into an empty pool.

We also say you have only yourself to blame. We’re supposed to need a good drubbing before learning our lesson. But even getting hammered teaches us nothing, it seems. I worked for eight years with a sculptor and saw some things like what I am now going to tell you about, and even worse. But that did not stop one of my best friends being cheated before my eyes.

Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator is an organization created to promote and nurture the talents of emerging artists from Latin America and the Caribbean. That is how its founder, director and curator Rosie Gordon Wallace, describes it.

I had the bad luck of meeting this lady in May 2011 at the Casa de las Américas and of staying in touch with her by email for a year, and introducing to her Yasser Castellano, husband of Veronica Vega, my friend and colleague on this website.

For a long time I was proud to tell everyone about it. Thanks to me, Yasser sold four paintings to this woman who paid cash for them. In addition, she invited both of us to a show in Southampton, New York. I must be fair and say that she provided the money for our visas and if they had been denied, the loss would have been hers alone.

There wasn’t time for both of us to travel to Southampton in August 2012, and instead of canceling the plans; Ms. Gordon decided to redraft the letters of invitation so we could attend a show in December. This time she included Veronica.

With so many demonstrations of good faith, Yasser had no reason to distrust Rosie when she returned to Cuba in July 2012, and asked him for paintings to display at the show in Southampton. Yasser handed over his paintings without a contract or a lawyer.

We had no reason to distrust Ms. Gordon Wallace then or later when she wrote to say that only three artists had managed to sell their works in Southampton, and one of them was Yasser. The prices of the pieces were 2000, 1200 and 700 USD. We can still see the expression on her face when Yasser set the prices in July and she said “more than fair”.

In October, Yasser’s money had still not reached Cuba. But we still had no reason for mistrust. We had both obtained our visas that would allow us to live the Cuban dream of traveling to another country and returning to tell the tale.

The dream slowly became a nightmare. First we realized that the trip was not on. We were forced to confront the fact because Ms. Gordon Wallace never bothered to tell us that it had been canceled.

I think she had every right to go back on her decision without explanation. But one thing she should have explained to us is why the check for Yasser, that she eventually sent to Veronica’s sister in Florida, was only for 1500 USD.

From the United States you can only send money to Cuba to a family member. Veronica has her father and sister there. Rosie Gordon Wallace could have easily sent the money via one of them, but it took her three months to do so.

Assuming that the paintings were sold at the price Yasser set (and not a lot more as many people have told us is possible) the total amount of the sale was 3900 USD, of which Yasser was prepared to lose as much as half.

I wrote Rosie Gordon Wallace several times, sure there was a logical explanation as to why Yasser had received less than half of the money. I got to the point of creating (or trying to create) an account on Facebook, to contact her. I asked an acquaintance in the United States to telephone her to see if she had any health problems.

My efforts paid off. In December, I got an email saying “I’ll be in touch, not well.” I am still hoping to hear from her.

Veronica’s father traveled to Florida to meet personally with Rosie Gordon Wallace. Through him, Yasser got his money (after the 10% tax applied here on the US dollar, he received just over 1300 CUC) as well as answers to his questions.

Rosie Gordon said she decided to cancel it when questions arose about the delay in sending the money, and the amount. There seems to be an unwritten rule that says when Cubans negotiate with foreigners they are supposed to do as the TV spot for Lucas video clips says, “Take whatever they give you.” Without protest, no questions asked, not a word, except “thank you”, even if you’re being screwed.

On the money Yasser received from the sale of his paintings: Mrs. Gordon said she incurred a lot of expenses with us, 160 CUC for Yasser’s visa and 150 CUC for mine. Both of us would be traveling under the auspices of Cuban institutions so we did not have to pay anything to the Cuban Immigration Office for the letters of invitation that were still required at the time.

Yasser already had a passport and I paid for mine in Cuban pesos out of my own pocket. Veronica’s expenses did not count because her father covered those.

Nor was it fair for her to charge my expenses to Yasser, since the idea of inviting me came from her.

But somehow, Ms. Gordon decided it was fair for Yasser to cover her expenses not only from over half of the money from the sale of his paintings, but with two of his works which she has no intention of returning.

Veronica’s sister phoned her to get them back but she never returned the calls. She has gone on several occasions to Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator where Rosie Gordon Wallace, also lives and found it empty.

Paintings in the event at Southampton. The one in the center and flag on the right are by Yasser Castellano.

The funny thing is that one of the reasons I trusted in the good will of this woman was the fact she had given us the money for the visas.

I reasoned it made no sense for her to do that if she had no intention of bringing us over, particularly since it was her idea to invite us in the first place. Now I see it was a really good investment: More than half the money from the sale of the paintings and two free paintings to boot, is not bad at all for an investment of 310 CUC.

Now I think it is not by chance this woman is working primarily with emerging artists from developing countries, particularly those desperate for a break.

Our overconfidence, and I says ours because I was present when Yasser handed over his paintings and I feel responsible, makes any complaint out of the question.

All we can do is try to warn our compatriots. I refer not only to Cubans, but to any third world unknown artist, eager to promote their work and open the doors to success.

I know that unfortunately this story will be repeated, because misfortune only seems plausible when we it hits us in the face; people still feel the need to take a risk.

Take a chance if you have to, but make sure you have a lawyer, with all the necessary documents in order. Before signing make sure you read any document five hundred times if need be. It can never be enough.

Not only am I warning people about Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, but also about any other apparently altruistic and well-intentioned foreigner. Hopefully I am wrong but I have come to the conclusion that the possibility of a foreigner approaching us with a proposition to our benefit is as likely as snow falling in Havana in mid summer. If we benefit in any way it is merely incidental.

So make sure you are not the next victim. Make sure the same thing does not happen to anyone else, a relative, a friend or even a stranger.

5 thoughts on “Three Cubans and a Scam Artist

  • To be honest, it really hurts me to read all that. You really have to get the right contact. Griffin was mentioning the Buena Vista Social Club, well they have been to Vienna I think it was two years ago. They had their concert in the Vianna State Opera House and it was overwhelmingly overcrowded. I don`t think such a thing could have happened to them with a partner like this. At the other hand, to be more concrete ( I studied a.o. Fine Arts myself), maybe you should contact the Cuban Embassy in Vienna, did you know, that the only museum for Cuban fine art outside of Cuba is located in Vienna, set up through private funding by an Austrian industrial wh collects Cuban Fine Art and housed in the old building ( beautiful building in the outskirts , sort of what you see in Maramar, similar area as well, though no ocean) of the Cuban Embassy. I think it might be worth a trial. Cuban art, whether music or fine art ( maybe a little less as less known), are very much esteemed in our country, as people, although a 99% not communist, in general do have pretty much sympathy for Cuba .

    E-mail: [email protected]

    Tel.:0043 1 877 81 98

    If this would be a way to help you. good luck

  • Cimarron: was it Reagan? I thoght it was Lenin who said: Confidence is good, control is better. The more pleasent that Reagan quoted Lenin ( he wouldn`t have known anyways I suppose) jejeje

  • Truly sad. Yusimi, so sorry to hear this happened to your friend but I’m not surprised in the least. In fact, famous Cuban musicians and dance groups have been ripped off even more and on a constant basis. Thanks to one of the provisions of the blockade, which stipulates that only travel and living expenses can be paid to Cuban music groups, you find top rate, internationally-renowned musicians (and dance groups) being paid a pittance, put in the cheapest, run of the mill hotels and scheduled for back-to-back concert performances. It is so sad, and outrageous, considering the huge amounts of money the US promoters make.
    I had the golden opportunity of seeing Ibrahim Ferrer and Buena Vista Social Club in 2002. (The previous year I had learned about the concert at the last minute and after waiting over an hour in a long line outside the box office in freezing winter temperatures, I did not get a ticket because the concert sold out.) Inside the concert theatre, it was like a sea of people! My cheap ticket cost $35 so one can imagine what a bonanza the US tour promoters made. After the wonderful concert, it took about 30 minutes to get out of the theatre – that’s another measure of how many people were there and exiting from 2 exits. Outside the tour bus was being readied for the 5 hour trip to for the next concert city! It was almost midnight, and it was so sad to see the frail figures of the elderly Cuban music stars moving slowly and boarding the bus for the night voyage. This is the typical scenario. I often wondered whether the musicians even got a chance to do some sightseeing in the cities they were performing in. I remember very well that after Ibrahim passed away, Juan Marcos blamed the tour organizers for working these musicians too much and too hard.
    Experience is maestra vida, and the best one. Always remember that the USA was not built on charity but on capitalism, and that instructs the mentality and way of life here especially in business. Always, always, always, in your future dealings with US contacts, do have something written down. Indeed, this is one instance where we can agree with Ronald Reagan completely: Trust but verify!!!

  • I had to read this post closely because I am more accustomed to reading the contrary taking place. Stories abound of Cubans who scam foreigners, not the other way around. Either way, it is sad to hear when someone takes advantage of someone else. As I was often told during my early and most vulnerable days in Cuba, ‘No todos son iguales”, not all foreigners who claim to want to help Cuban artists are out to scam. Still, as I quickly learned in Cuba with Cubans, always be careful.

  • I don’t know what the rates are at the Diaspora Vibe Gallery, but commissions on art sales is usually 50% to 60%. The higher profile galleries charge an even higher rate. Some galleries also deduct extraordinary expenses, although that should be made clear from the outset.

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