Juanes Insists Concert in Cuba Is Not About Politics
"Our only message is one of peace, of humanitarianism, of tolerance, a message of interacting with the people," he said.
Juanes sells millions of albums, fills arenas across the Americas, has a shelf full of Grammys and is widely admired for his humanitarian work in his native Colombia.
His stature has made his decision to play the Sept. 20 concert -- entitled Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders) -- a potential turning point in the sometimes hostile relationship between Cuba and the exile community, even as it has unleashed a storm of controversy in Miami and beyond.
For some, a star like Juanes playing in Cuba lends credibility to a dictatorial government and ignores the plight of political prisoners and dissidents.
"He is playing the game of those assassins," says Ana Margarita Martinez, well-known locally for unwittingly marrying a Cuban spy who infiltrated the exile group Brothers to the Rescue. "He is going to a place where there are no human rights. . . . I'm insulted."
Juan Carlos Espinosa, an associate dean of the Honors College at Florida International University, says Juanes has every right to perform in Cuba, but "what I object to is that he says his performing in Cuba is not a political act. Choosing to perform in Cuba, where everything is politicized and a military regime has ruled for 50 years, is in and of itself a political decision." Sitting in his sun-filled home in Key Biscayne on Tuesday, Juanes said the concert is a way to go beyond politics, and to inspire both sides to reach out to each other in a different way.
"I cannot give answers to all these questions people are asking me" about politics in Cuba, he said. "It's not my strength. It's not something I can control. . . We are musicians, not politicians.
"It seems to me that Cuba is a country that's been isolated for many years, for historic reasons that we all know," he added. "I respect that profoundly. I know that what has happened has been hard. But we're talking about now, the present, today."
Juanes says what matters is that he will be playing for an expected audience of more than 600,000 Cubans who almost never have the chance to hear musicians outside the island.
Juanes will be joined by pop singers Miguel Bosé of Spain, Olga Tañon from Puerto Rico, and by the Cuban artists Silvio Rodríguez and Los Van Van. Unlike previous concerts featuring foreign pop stars -- a 1979 event with Billy Joel and one in 1999 with Bonnie Raitt and members of The Police -- there will be no restrictions on who can attend, he says. They will perform in front of the National Library, the same location where Pope John Paul II gave a Mass in 1998, instead of in front of politically controversial monuments to Che Guevara and Jose Martí.
"How great it'll be to be there and see this plaza that's so big filled with an immense quantity of people enjoying artists that they want to see," Juanes says. "And we want to see them too. We want to see the Cuban people."
A number of Cuban-American groups have also come out in support of Juanes' efforts, and the singer says much of what he hears from his many Cuban friends in Miami is positive. Exiles who want to change the dialogue with the island applaud the star's efforts.
"I believe in Juanes' honesty," says Miami musician, writer and teacher Alfredo Triff. "I don't think he should have to make any statements. All he has to do is play. I'm sure a bunch of people are dying to hear him. This concert can be a force for good."
The concert comes as the Obama administration has eased restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island, and amid speculation that it is considering further changes to U.S.-Cuba policy, including a return to the people-to-people cultural exchanges promoted by the Clinton administration. Later this year the New York Philharmonic will play in Cuba.
This month, a State Department official told El Nuevo Herald that the department was in favor of these kinds of cultural exchanges.
Juanes' first move in planning the event was to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the administration and Congress in May, to see if they would support his efforts and give permission to the U.S. musicians and technicians to come to the show.
"This is the right moment to start something," Juanes says. "In the last administration, for sure we weren't talking about this. But with this administration, with Obama as president, I believe it's different."
Juanes staged the first Paz Sin Fronteras concert in March 2008, on the Colombia-Venezuela border as tensions between the two countries seemed about to turn into armed conflict. That show, which included Bosé and other Latin stars, drew 100,000 people.
But Juanes says many of the artists who were originally going to join him in Cuba have dropped out. He and his manager have been seeking sponsors but so far have not found any, and say they will cover the approximately $300,000 cost themselves.
"I don't need to do this," Juanes says. "I'm doing this because I really believe that music is powerful.
"Yes, maybe I'm a dreamer. But I'm not going to change. If after the concert nothing positive happens, that's a risk I'm taking."
Source: Miami Herald