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Latin superstar Juanes faces criticism for concert in Cuba

September 20, 2009|Paul Haven

HAVANA — An international rock star is bringing a mega-concert to Cuba -- a spectacle that could be the biggest visit by an outsider since Pope John Paul II's 1998 tour -- while shrugging off death threats over an event he has dedicated to peace.

Colombian star Juanes, who has won 17 Latin Grammy awards, more than any other artist, is known for his social activism.

Juanes' show is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the iconic Plaza of the Revolution, where the pope celebrated Mass and which has been the scene of some of former President Fidel Castro's most famous speeches.

Sunday's show, which promises a rare dose of big-name entertainment in a tightly controlled country starved for a release, is the second installment of Juanes' "Peace Without Borders" series.

The first concert in March 2008 drew tens of thousands to the border between Venezuela and Colombia when tensions were high over a Colombian commando raid into neighboring Ecuador to kill a leading rebel commander.

Juanes has promised the afternoon concert in Cuba will be about music, not politics, but such sentiments are nearly impossible here.

Many Cuban-Americans in South Florida are angry about the show, saying that simply by showing up, Juanes has endorsed Cuba's communist government. He has received death threats on his Twitter page, and police in Key Biscayne, Florida, say they are keeping watch over the homes of both the rocker and his manager, Fernan Martinez Maecha.

And the location of the concert itself makes this concert unique. Earlier shows, including performances by Billy Joel in 1979 and Bonnie Raitt 20 years later, have been held indoors or on the Havana waterfront.

Juanes' venue, the Plaza of the Revolution features a giant overhead likeness of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara and the heavily guarded offices of Fidel and Raul Castro.

Some critics have called for a boycott of Juanes' music and a small anti-Castro group known as Vigilia Mambisa has announced a CD-smashing protest to coincide with the performance.

Others in the Cuban-American community in Florida have voiced support for the event, and Spanish-language stations are gearing up for coverage.

Carlos Saladrigas, head of the Cuba Study Project, a business-oriented group of Cuban-American leaders that advocates increased dialogue and trade between the countries, called the concert "a great opportunity for the Cuban people to have a window to the outside world."

The anger across the Florida Straits comes despite the fact that leading Cuban dissidents on the island have voiced support for the concert. This month, 24 of the 75 Cuban opposition activists arrested in a 2003 government crackdown on political dissent signed a letter saying the show should go on.

Puerto Rican singer Olga Tanon, one of at least 14 artists who will perform in addition to Juanes, said she has come to the island for just one reason: to sing.

"I have not come to Cuba to talk about politics, because I am not a politician," she said Wednesday.

Still, Tanon said earlier in Puerto Rico that she would like to see more opening with respect to the island. "Obviously, we want there to be a bit more communication at the global level with Cuba," she said.

And despite the nonpolitical aims of the organizers, some Cuban officials have used the event to take a swipe at U.S. policy on Cuba, particularly its 47-year embargo, which Cuba refers to as a blockade.

The concert "is a reflection that international public opinion is in favor of a change in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba," Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Wednesday. "It is a statement for peace. The blockade is an act of war."

On the streets of Havana, however, most people said they did not care about any of that. They were looking forward to a great show.

"This has nothing to do with politics," said Alejandro Pujol, a 20-year-old student. "This is a concert for peace."

In addition to Juanes, the concert will feature Cuban folk legend Silvio Rodriguez and salsa stars Los Van Van.

While cultural exchanges are not uncommon in Cuba -- Britain's Royal Ballet performed here in July and the New York Philharmonic plans a visit in late October -- a pop concert on the scale of Sunday's is unprecedented and promises to draw fans from all over the island.

"Everybody in Cuba will be here," said Alexis Rosales, a 37-year-old driver standing next to an old truck near the concert site.

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Haven writes for the Associated Press. Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.

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