Monday, September 21, 2009

In Castro Country, Giving a Concert for Peace (Washington Post)

Cuban Exiles Decry Event, but Leading Latin Music Acts Perform Before Hundreds of Thousands in Havana

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 21, 2009

HAVANA, Sept. 20 -- Rock-and-roll diplomacy came to the communist isle on a smoldering afternoon, as hundreds of thousands of Cubans filled the Plaza of the Revolution on Sunday and sang along to a dozen international musical acts led by the Colombian singer and peace activist Juanes.

The free "Peace without Borders" concert was criticized by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami as a propaganda coup for the Castro brothers, and that it might have been. But for thousands of young Cubans, it was a rare treat to hear a lineup of global Latin music stars, such as Olga Tanon of Puerto Rico and Miguel Bosé of Spain.

Under the watchful gaze of a huge mural of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and beneath the socialist slogan "Always Toward Victory!" on the side of the Ministry of Interior building, there was no trouble from the mostly young crowd. Many were dressed in white, in keeping with the peaceful vibe.

From the stage, framed by giant posters of a white dove, musicians offered hopeful but admittedly vague appeals for change, solidarity and, of course, peace. Bosé told the crowd that "the greatest dream we can live is to dream the dream of peace." He also announced that there were more than a million people in the square, though there were no official estimates.

Tanon shouted that she brought greetings from Miami -- home of many Cuban exiles who live in opposition to the Cuban government -- and no one in the crowd booed, but instead whistled and cheered.

The United States has pursued a policy of economic embargo and diplomatic freeze against Cuba for almost 50 years, hoping to topple the government, to no avail. Despite promises by President Obama, change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship has been slow in coming.

In an interview aired Sunday on the Spanish-language network Univision, Obama acknowledged that the concert would only go so far. "I certainly don't think it hurts U.S.-Cuban relations," he said. "I wouldn't overstate the degree that it helps."

The plaza is iconic as the scene of some of Fidel Castro's biggest rallies and longest speeches, though he has not been seen in public for almost three years, after intestinal surgery. Anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami have voiced heated opposition to the concert, saying it only served to support the government here, which would milk the event for publicity even as it imprisons hundreds of political dissidents.

Because of his participation, Juanes has received death threats. But some of the pressure on him eased when, earlier this month, 24 of the 75 Cuban opposition leaders arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent signed a letter saying the show must go on.

"We came to Cuba with love. We have overcome fear to be with you, and we hope that you too can overcome it," Juanes told the masses. "All the young people, from Miami in the United States and in all the cities, must understand the importance of turning hate into love."

More than 100 buses could be counted bringing young people to the concert. "This is the best concert to come to Cuba in, like, 50 years," said Yeilene Fernandez, a student at the University of Havana who was dancing with friends.

Sitting in his hotel room on the eighth floor of the Hotel Nacional the night before the show, Juanes was typing out messages for his Twitter followers. He was wearing a silver crucifix, jeans and a T-shirt. "It's important to do this. I know this in my heart," he said. "Our region, Latin America, is very complicated right now. We're all going our separate ways because of our ideologies. It's time to change our minds, to do something beyond politics, for young people."

Juanes had previously met with Obama administration officials, and being a 17-time Latin Grammy winner who has become a kind of roving diplomat in Latin America, he got to see Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She gave her blessing to his participation in the concert.

"We asked what they thought, and they said, 'Go ahead.' She was very positive," he said. "Me, I am Colombian, so I didn't need to ask permission. But we did need permission for all our staff, and they said sure."

Juanes said he asked some artists to come, "but they were afraid. Latin artists, we live in Miami, and when you live in Miami, anything to do with Cuba is always a challenge. Some people in Miami are against anything to do with Cuba. Some are in the middle. And the young people, they definitely support cultural exchange."

Next up in that exchange: The New York Philharmonic is coming to play a series of concerts at the Teatro Amadeo Roldan in Havana at the end of October.

"I see an increase in these cultural exchanges, and I think it's healthy, it's a step in the right direction," said Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, in an interview. He traveled this month to Cuba to discuss trade issues with the government.

In Havana on Sunday, those who were not at the Plaza of the Revolution watched the concert on rickety old TV sets in airless living rooms** -- or sat in their front courtyards to catch the breeze and listened to the show on the radio.

The artists performed free and covered the cost of shipping stage and sound equipment from Miami for the mega-concert. The Cuban government provided logistical and technical support. Juanes insisted that the signal from the show is free to use, download or broadcast anywhere in the world.

Juanes performed his first "Peace without Borders" concert on the frontier between Colombia and Venezuela last year during a time of heightened animosity between the countries. He said he would like to perform a third peace concert at the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. A vicious battle between street dealers and drug cartels, fighting among themselves and against federal troops, has left more than 1,600 people dead this year, making Juarez the most violent city in the world.

Juanes said: "I am from Colombia. I have no idea what it means to live in peace."

** The author has obviously not spent a lot of time in Cuban living rooms or watched many televisions there.

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