Cuba's Mega–Rock Concert: A Win-Win for Juanes

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Sven Creutzmann / Mambo Photo / Getty

Singer Juanes of Colombia performs during the concert for Peace Without Borders, featuring some 15 Latin-American, Spanish and Cuban performers, at the Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 20, 2009

At the end of his internationally televised concert in Havana's Revolution Plaza on Sunday, Sept. 20, Colombian rock superstar Juanes looked out at a crowd of more than 1 million and shouted, "Cuba libre! Cuba libre!" (Free Cuba!) It was a mantra you could take two ways: If you're a fan of Cuba's communist government, it was a cry to keep the island safe from U.S. imperialism. If you're a foe, it was a plea for the political and economic freedoms that Fidel Castro and his brother, current President Raúl Castro, have muzzled for 50 years.

Or, as Juanes probably preferred, you could assign no political message to it whatsoever and just take the star-studded concert for what he intended it to be: a chance to let Latin rhythms drown out the polarized polemics for a few hours and maybe get the U.S. and Cuba to think harder about how to improve their tortured relations.

Yeah, right. Earth to Juanes: this is Cuba we're talking about, the worn out Cold War football of every left-wing apologist and right-wing opportunist in the hemisphere. Politics enters into todo, everything. Any idealistic electric-guitar picker who thinks otherwise is just asking for the kind of grief Juanes experienced in the months leading up to Sunday's Peace Without Borders show, complete with the death threat he received from an anti-Castro militant on Twitter and the insults hurled at Miami's Cuban exiles from the newspaper Granma and other mouthpieces of the Castro regime.

Yet by most accounts, Juanes scored a success. Critics accused him of helping legitimize the Castros; they argued that the brothers wouldn't have let the king of the Latin Grammys take over the same square beneath the massive visage of Che Guevara if they thought he was a threat to their rule. In the short run, at least, the Castros won p.r. points at home and abroad by letting Juanes and other Latin luminaries perform.

But on an island where communism is the de facto state religion, it was a refreshing shock on both sides of the Florida Straits to see the hallowed Revolution Plaza packed not for a 10-hour Fidel speech but for something as joyously secular as a pop concert. As Granma itself noted afterward, there was "no political manipulation of cultural expression ... just a vote for human understanding." And while that's to the Castros' credit, the truth is that the long-term effects of that sort of nondogmatic fiesta don't always favor systems like Cuba's. Says Daniel Erikson, a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and author of The Cuba Wars: "These kinds of cultural exchanges bring alternative voices that diminish the government's monopoly on information and expression."

Which is why the concert's supporters, including many in the Miami exile community, say it's time for the Obama Administration to revive the U.S.-Cuba cultural exchanges that began in the 1990s but were nixed under former President George W. Bush. "I took part in the Bay of Pigs, and I've been fighting the Castros for 50 years," says Francisco (Pepe) Hernandez, 73, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami, which backed Juanes' efforts despite protests by more hard-line exiles that included smashing the singer's CDs in Little Havana. "But it was tremendous to see Juanes sing about freedom in that plaza to the new generation of Cubans. We've thought for too long that we could topple the government in Cuba from here in Miami, but we have to approach it more from the bottom up by taking this kind of thing directly to the Cuban people."

President Obama has pledged to thaw U.S.-Cuba affairs as a way to promote democracy on the island. Though he favors keeping intact the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, he eliminated restrictions on travel to Cuba for Cuban-American families, and his Administration is now in talks with Havana about improving immigration and postal service between the two countries. Erikson says the concert by Juanes, who lives in Miami, was a reminder of the "soft power tool kit" the U.S. should wield more often. "Obama needs to bring more of that kind of cultural diplomacy back into the arena," he says, "but so far it's taking a backseat."

Obama, however, seems less than impressed with such arguments. Sunday morning, in an interview with the Spanish-language television network Univisión, he said that while he didn't think events like the Juanes concert hurt U.S.-Cuba relations, "I wouldn't overstate the degree that it helps." If that indifference seems to contradict the spirit of U.S.-Cuba engagement that Obama expressed in his presidential campaign and at the Summit of the Americas earlier this year, it may be because he's found that conservatives can still give him headaches over Cuba and the Latin-American left. Republicans are currently holding up key diplomatic appointments in Congress, for example, to protest Obama's support of leftist Honduran Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup over the summer. (That issue may become more complicated with the news Monday that Zelaya smuggled himself back into Honduras.)

Still, in his book, Erikson describes how increased cultural-exchange activity at the end of the 20th century led to more robust public discussion and independent journalism in Cuba by the start of the 21st century — enough so, he writes, that an alarmed Fidel Castro cracked down with sweeping arrests of dissidents and writers in 2003. Despite that setback, exchange advocates feel it's time to start again. The point, they say, is that even if Juanes meant nothing by shouting "Cuba libre!," it was enough if he got some of those 1 million Cubans wondering what he did mean by it.