Juanes, the difficult terrain of neutrality.

Juanes and Ché, its hard to be apolitical in Havana..

Juanes and Ché, its hard to be apolitical in Havana..

Colombian rock singer Juanes has caused quite a stir in his adopted hometown of Miami for his project of bringing a stellar roster of Latin musicians to a mega concert in Havana. Today, after facing a storm of controversy among exile Cubans for several weeks, the concert, called Peace Without Borders is in full swing in the Plaza de la Revolución with an audience of over a million people.

To people outside the Cuban sphere the controversy surrounding this concert may be hard to comprehend, and I will attempt to shed some light on the subject.

The intent of Juanes, no doubt sincere, is to bring an apolitical message of peace. He calls for the world to “open up to Cuba”, obviously referring to the U.S. embargo of the island nation. Part of the Cuban exile community perceives the concert to be a show of support for the Castro regime.

Juanes and the other artists have protested vehemently that this is the case, insisting in the neutrality of their message. This may be true, but it is naíve to believe that The Plaza de La Revolución in Havana is neutral ground.

Dominated by the gigantic face of Che Guevara adorning the Ministry of the Interior and Defense, the plaza has been used primarily for political reasons, where people are obligated to attend rallies in which Fidel Castro has harangued his enemies for hours on end, calling the internal dissidents “worms” that must be destroyed.

One such dissident is Gorki Aguila, the lead singer in the Cuban rock band “Porno para Ricardo” He is one of the few artists who have dared to criticize the government, and the band has paid the prize, being banned from TV, radio and festivals. After being arrested twice on grounds of “social dangerousness” and “subverting Communist morality,” he now lives in exile in Mexico after international groups pressed for his release.

Imagine for a moment U2, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Michael Jackson going to South Africa to sing in the name of peace around 1986 or so in an apolitical concert, without mentioning Apartheid, Nelson Mandela and the oppression the black South Africans were suffering. That somehow a message of peace would magically percolate through their silence and bring about change. This is basically what Juanes & Co. is doing.

The problem is really not one of lack of peace, but rather lack of freedom. Watching the concert I am reminded less of “Live Aid” than “Johnny Cash Live in Folsom Prison” It is the free singing to the prisoners.

Juanes is on stage singing as I write: “Life has possibility, nothing is impossible” Such generalities are well liked in every country and goes well with his particular brand of blandness. At the end he calls out to the audience, “We are all equal

Like Orwell observed, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others“, as Cubans are very familiar with the style of apartheid that gives tourists privileges unavailable to the natives. After today, Juanes and his musical guests are free to leave the country when they’re done playing, while the Cubans are left to continue their prison term under the Castro brothers or risk their lives on a raft in order to leave.

Some Peace.

Caricature by Venezuelan cartoonist Weil. (Translation: “Cuban people, how do you feel?”)

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  • Nia says:

    This is causing quite a stir in Spain, where Juanes is very popular. What I think is that we hold artists to impossibly high ethical standards sometimes; I remember the times of the Spanish participation in the Irak war, when some people even suggested that artists should boycott institutions governed by the Popular Party. That would have meant refusing or giving back grants and salaries for people who depended on Conservative-controlled town councils, for example.

    Nobody is holding a debate on whether the tourism industry in Cuba is ethical, or on everyone’s businesses in China. But when it’s art, ah. Reminds me of that quote from The Importance of being Earnest, “f the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

  • IPH says:

    I think the controversy surrounding this concert has been overblown, in the end it’s just a musical event. What I react to is the idea that something that claims to be neutral can bring about change, which seemed to be the vague idea with “Peace Without Borders”. I think it’s experienced as something more transcendent by the artists and than people outside Cuba than what is felt by the Cuban people.

    BTW, You’re right about the European tourism in Cuba and the West’s business with China, those are true moral dilemmas.

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