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.
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.