Ry Cooder has been known for more than 30 years as a consummate musician and as a passionate advocate and diligent archivist of music from around the world. But lately, some suggest that he can now be regarded as a member of a newly conspicuous and controversial group: donors to the campaign of U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) who received favors from Bill Clinton in the waning hours of his presidency.
Last Saturday, guitarist/producer Cooder returned to the United States from Cuba, having recorded with local musicians in Havana. All obstacles to traveling and recording in Cuba, which is under a strict, four-decade-old U.S. embargo, were removed due to the intervention of outgoing Clinton administration officials and the president himself.
Coincidentally or not, as he was encountering problems securing a license to record in Cuba last year, Cooder contributed $10,000 to Hillary Clinton's victorious campaign to represent the state of New York in the Senate.
Cooder's dispensation and contribution have come to light in the context of Bill Clinton's exit from the White House, one that many maintain occurred under a cloud of impropriety. But others think any such connection is rubbish.
"Whatever one thinks of [Bill] Clinton's decisions to pardon certain people or to accept gifts, or relate favors granted for contributions received," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-California), "tying that to this decision to give Ry Cooder a license to record great aging Cuban musicians is absolute nonsense." Berman is the author of a 1988 amendment to the Constitution allowing international cultural exchanges, even with countries under anti-democratic governments such as that of Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro.
Candace Hanson, Cooder's lawyer, did not return a call for comment at press time. Sen. Clinton's office has consistently denied any knowledge of Cooder's traveling woes and any connection.
Unlike the trip he made to the country in 1996 which yielded 1997's massively popular, Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album, and for which he was fined $25,000 for recording there without a license Cooder's most recent jaunt to Cuba was authorized by the U.S. State Department and licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Initially, the State Department's Cuban Affairs section refused to approve Cooder's application, filed in January 2000, to return to Cuba. In August 2000, the Department specified that he could return but could not share in profits resulting from the sessions, which were conducted with guitarist Manuel Galban. Cooder did not accept, and re-applied in November, according to the Sun.
But in the same flurry of pardons and favors meted out to the likes of fugitive financier Marc Rich and first brother Roger Clinton, outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel Barber interceded on Cooder's behalf on January 17, three days before President Bush's inauguration.
"It may very well be a coincidence," said Lawrence Nobles of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., organization focusing on campaign finance reform. "Mr. Cooder has given campaign contributions to other candidates (Democratic California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein), but nothing this large. What's more important is the problem with the whole system. You have something that appears suspicious: He was first fined for going to Cuba, he puts in an application, then contributes to Senator Clinton's campaign, and then his application is approved.
"It may very well be that it was approved for valid reasons, and nobody in the line for authorizing the approval knew about the contribution," Nobles continued. "The problem here is that it looks like there may be [favoritism involved]."
Berman disagrees. "As long as we have a system of private financing of campaigns," he said, "one can always question the motivation for any official action. Carrying that logic to this decision is off-base."
"I have been involved in this case for  months, speaking to the State Department, the Treasury department and National Security Department," he said. "The reason this license wasn't granted sooner is about politics in Florida." The powerful Cuban-American community in the Miami area is viscerally anti-Castro, and is influential in perpetuating the embargo against Cuba.
"I believe that major policymakers like Albright and Berger thought it was crazy not to let him go down there and record musicians whom Castro kept from performing in front of their own people and to people around the world for years," he said.
If Berman offers any criticism regarding impropriety, he doesn't lay it at Cooder's door, opting instead for an address in Chappaqua, New York. "When you've done things that look suspicious, as occurred near the end of the [Clinton] administration, you end up tainting a lot of decisions made for straightforward, honest, noble purposes." Cooder plans to return to Havana in March to record with Ibrahim Ferrer, a vocalist prominently featured on Buena Vista Social Club.