Huge crowd fills Havana square for peace concert

News from Cuba | Sunday, 20 September 2009

By Jeff Franks for Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of people filled Havana's Revolution Square for a "peace" concert on Sunday in which Colombian singer Juanes and other musicians sought to bridge the political divide that has separated Cubans for 50 years.

The concert was shown live on international television, including to viewers in Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community and center of opposition to Cuba's communist-led government.

A small group of exiles, who say Juanes legitimized a government that denies its people basic human rights, staged a protest in Miami's Little Havana against the concert.

Juanes, who organized his "Peace Without Borders" concert in conjunction with the Cuban government, sang "it's time to change" in a song and told the audience "the important thing is to swap hate for love."

He had insisted the show was not political, but raised eyebrows at the end of the concert when he shouted "one Cuban family" for Cuban unity and "Cuba libre," words that have been a rallying cry in the exile community for years.

They prompted immediate speculation on Spanish-language television in Miami, but drew no response from the Cuban government.

Juanes, a 17-time Latin Grammy winner who lives in Miami, was joined on stage by 14 artists from six countries, among them Olga Tanon of the U.S. territory Puerto Rico, Miguel Bose of Spain and Jovanotti of Italy. Cuban salsa kings Los Van Van closed it out.

The huge crowd in attendance, which Juanes said numbered more than 1 million, danced and swayed under a blistering sun that caused many to faint during the five-hour event.


Juanes has said he organized the concert because he believes U.S. President Barack Obama has "opened the door" to change by easing the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo and taking other steps to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.

In an interview aired Sunday by Spanish-language network Univision, Obama downplayed the concert's importance, saying "I certainly don't think it hurts U.S.-Cuban relations ... (but) I wouldn't overstate the degree that it helps."

He said he would like to see Cuban leaders respond to his overture by moving away "from some of the anti-democratic practices of the past."

Cuba's government last week chided Obama for not doing more to completely end the U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

In the concert crowd, Hector Pena, who works in tourism, called the show "a success," but shared Obama's skepticism about its ability to change long-bitter U.S.-Cuba relations.

"With or without Juanes, Cuba and the United States are two big noses that will never be able to kiss," he said.

In Miami, where many Cubans fled after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and steered Cuba toward communism, a small anti-Castro group called Mambisa Watch staged a protest in August by crushing Juanes CDs and did the same thing on Sunday using a small steamroller.

A rival group across the street, Little Havana's Calle Ocho, shouted "Viva Juanes," scuffles broke out and police had to intervene.

In a nearby Calle Ocho park where elderly exiles gather to play dominoes, several spoke out against the concert.

"There has been a lot of blood spilled in Cuba and people executed by firing squad. He (Juanes) is singing over dead bodies," said Hernan Gonzalez, 77, who said he spent six years in a Cuban jail for opposing Fidel Castro in the 1960s.

Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto condemned the Miami protests, telling reporters on Friday the concert was "a huge blow ... against that vulgar form of fascism practiced over there" in Miami.

A number of Cuban dissidents supported the concert, even though they say the government was using it to project an image of tolerance that does not exist.

One of Cuba's leading anti-government dissidents, Martha Beatriz Roque, told Univision on Sunday that Cuban state security police had warned a number of dissidents and other individuals to stay away from Revolution Square.

"Apart from his music, he (Juanes) brought to Cuba a wave of harassment against some people," she said.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta, Rosa Tania Valdes, Esteban Israel and Marc Frank in Havana, Pascal Fletcher in Miami; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anthony Boadle)

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