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

Sept 22--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.

22 de septiembre de 2009

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. (Read a TIME 100 profile of Juanes.)

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. (See pictures of the fading legacy of Cuban music on the island itself.)

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."
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