Testing the free market

Cuba's socialist system didn't undermine the artistic freedom of singer Issac Delgado with draconian repression or ideological censorship. It gradually got to him by bureaucratic nicks and cuts.

Before defecting to the U.S. last year, Delgado was one of the island's top salsa stars, a celebrity who enjoyed relative prosperity in Havana and traveled freely throughout the world to perform and record.

But back home, he couldn't even get the government to authorize an Internet e-mail account, forcing him to find Web access on the black market.

"In Cuba, there's a Ministry of Culture that dictates which way things are going to go in music, literature and art," said Delgado, who performed Saturday at the Playboy Jazz Festival, his first Los Angeles appearance since moving to this country. "Everything is channeled, and one can't step out of those boundaries. So I didn't feel free to do what I wanted because the ruling system tells you exactly where you can work and what you can do."

Delgado is speaking out for the first time since he quietly settled in Florida last year. Before anybody realized it, the singer was living in Tampa with his wife, Masiel, and their two daughters, 4 and 11, along with a son by his first marriage, Issac Jr., who plays piano in Dad's band.

Delgado said he had been thinking of making a move for some time, but he didn't dare while his mother was still alive. After she passed away last year, he felt free to take the chance of leaving Cuba, perhaps never to return.

"If my mother were still alive," he said, "I would still be in Cuba today." His only lingering concern is the two children he left behind, a 20-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Delgado said he hopes his decision won't jeopardize their future on the island.

Other top performers who took that plunge before Delgado &

notably singers Carlos Manuel and Manolin, nicknamed the Salsa Doctor &

have seen their careers suddenly tank. They burned their bridges by condemning the Cuban government, only to be rejected by audiences in their adopted homeland.

It's up to Delgado to overcome the curse of exile. In this quest, he faces another capricious and tyrannical master &

the free market.

"I feel like I'm starting again from zero," said Delgado, who has put together a multinational, 13-piece band for his U.S. tour.

"I'm never going to lose the essence of who I am," he said. "Everything around me might sound Puerto Rican, but I am Cuban, and nobody can take the Cubano out of me."

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