The most important piece of Cuba news this week happened because of the bravery of a singer named Juanes.
His “Peace without Borders Concert,” attended by more than a million Cubans in Havana, was the largest mobilization in Cuba since the visit of Pope John Paul II.
He overcame threats of violence in his own community. He surmounted bureaucratic and legal hurdles here in the U.S. And, for more than seven hours, the event that he created captured the hearts of millions of people across the world and rightly so.
His opponents wanted to stop the concert for one simple reason. They can’t hold back the changes that will come in U.S.-Cuba relations unless they can permanently brand Cuba and the Cuban people as alien, as “the other.”
The images brought into our homes, onto our computers and television sets, were anything but alien – it was the inspiring yet familiar sight of people singing and dancing together – a scene that made virtually anyone watching long to be there with them.
If only U.S. law would allow that to happen without requiring our government’s permission.
Hearts were melted in Miami. Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group, wrote this morning in the Miami Herald, “I was left with a feeling that something transcendental had taken place.” And about those in the community who tried to stop the concert he spoke of “the growing disconnect between the exiled hardliners and the Cuban people….It is not reasonable to expect to partake in a new Cuba if we don’t partake in the process that creates it.”
To his great credit, President Obama allowed the necessary licenses to be approved so that people and equipment could make it to Cuba for the concert.
For that, he deserves a little slack for a somewhat grumpy sounding reaction to what had taken place. In an interview he said:
“I certainly don’t think it hurts US-Cuban relations, these kinds of cultural exchanges,” said Obama. But he concluded that he, “wouldn’t overstate the degree that it helps.”
Of course. But, we have to agree with our friend James Early who called the concert “an act of courage” and “an act of peaceful purpose by artists from many countries who are reflecting the readiness of fellow citizens and government representatives throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and across the U.S., to be witnesses to what can be done when there is mutual respect and will to do so despite differences.”
That is the message we heard and that inspired us in the moving imagery from the Juanes concert last Sunday. To him, we say, ¡Gracias por ser un símbolo de paz!
After Juanes, we report on Congressman Sam Farr’s trip to NY to talk about freedom to travel and the beneficial impact that changing the law would have on Cubans and Americans. We report on some visas – approved and denied – for Cubans coming to the U.S. (why not allow President Al.arcon to come here?). Finally, there is interesting reporting coming out of Cuba about a government debate on the future of socialism and how Cubans are participating.
Read all about it! This week in Cuba news…
Over one million Cubans, more than 10 percent of the island’s population, gathered at historic Revolutionary Plaza on Sunday to celebrate Juanes’ “Peace Without Borders” concert. The crowd was estimated at 1.15 million, the largest gathering on the island since Pope John Paul II held mass in Revolutionary Plaza in 1998.
The concert was opened by Puerto Rican merengue singer Olga Tañón, whose initial words, “together, we are going to make history,” caused the crowd to erupt in cheers.
International rock star Juanes appeared on stage about 3 hours into the 5 1/2 hour show, announcing his astonishment with the turnout. “I can’t believe what I am seeing with my own eyes,” he said.
“We came to Cuba for love,” Juanes said. “All the young people in the region, from Miami in the United States and in all the cities … should understand the importance of turning hate into love.”
The show also featured Cuban folk legend Silvio Rodríguez, Nueva Trova singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, Spanish singer Miguel Bose, the Europe-based hip hop Cuban trio Orishas, as well as other performers from Spain, Ecuador and Italy.
The legendary Cuban band Los Van Van wrapped up the show with their hit “Muévete,” and all participating artists crowded the stage and sang along. Tañon and Miguel Bosé, both fighting back tears, joined Juanes at the front of the stage.
Miami Tuned In
The show, which aired live from Havana on three Miami Spanish-language television stations, produced mixed reactions in Miami, the Miami Herald reported.
According to the Herald, “much of Cuban and Latino Miami witnessed that celebration via their television and computer screens.” Over 220,000 viewers tuned into Univision’s Channel 23 in Miami, and 140,000 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico watched on the network’s website. Telemundo’s coverage on Channel 51 in Miami drew three times their normal viewership, and over 600,000 people watched the live-streamed show on the website.
Juanes supporters are the majority in Miami
Miami was divided between those who supported Juanes’ initiative and those who opposed it. One exile group even brought a small steamroller to Calle Ocho to run over Juanes’ CDs, which sparked a counter demonstration that led to physical clashes between the two sides, the Miami Herald reported. However, in the end it was those favoring engagement who were the overwhelming majority, even in Miami.
“The pro-Juanes Cubans had the bigger flags. They also had the numbers. And they had youth. And in the end, they had Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, long a stronghold of hardline, right-wing politics in Miami,” reported NBC News.
Ana Maria Perez Castro, 38, who came from the island in 1979, watched the entire concert at home with her 16-year-old son and cried during the performance of Cucu Diamantes, a Cuban-American singer with the U.S.-based group Yerbabuena. “She’s also Cuban and she left, and to see her going back and performing for her people in her country was very emotional,” Castro told the Miami Herald. “I could totally connect to the message to break that barrier, that fear which is what keeps all this old mentality intact.”
Olga Tañón, the Puerto Rican tropical music singer, immediately challenged her critics in an appearance on a popular local Miami television show, “Esta Noche tu Night,” which is popular among exiles, the Examiner reported.
“If you [critics] can do it better than Juanes and I, great, let us know and we’ll move aside . . . but if not, shut up . . . shut up . . . we have to stop this nonsense,” said a seemingly fuming Tañón as she looked straight at the camera while struggling to hold back tears.
“It’s been really hard for Juanes and I to ward off all the attacks we have received lately, but with due respect to the Cuban exiles in Miami, we made history with what I always had faith in.”
“Today the hearts of everyone here have changed. Cuba cannot be the same after this event,” Juanes told the Herald from Havana Sunday evening. “This event reaffirmed the necessity for all of us to unite… The government of the U.S. has to change and Cuba has to change too. But this show of love and peace and affection is so important for both sides.”
According to Fernand Amandi, executive vice-president of Bendixen & Associates, “More than anything [the concert] underscores the fact that Cuba and relations with Cuba are undergoing a dramatic transformation that is irreversible,” and furthermore, “an increased acceptance of differing points of view in the exile community.”
“The U.S. and Cuba are in a phase of trying to get to a better place,” said Dr. Julia Sweig, the director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The entire hemisphere is pushing on Washington to open a new chapter with Cuba and pushing Cuba to open up to the world,” Diverse magazine reported.
U.S. Government reaction
In a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) applauded both governments for allowing it to happen and pointed out its significance.
“Both the U.S. and the Cuban governments helped facilitate the concert, including providing Juanes and his company of 15 international and Cuban artists full control over message and staging,” said McGovern.
“More than just a rock concert, this massive cultural event in Havana was a moving and emotional testament, even to many of its critics, about the power of the human spirit to reach across barriers during times of tension and opportunity. The ripples and waves created by this concert are just beginning to be felt in Cuba, the United States and throughout the hemisphere.”
You can see a clip of Rep. McGovern’s floor speech here.
Congressman José E. Serrano (D-NY) also highlighted the importance of the event.
“The concert’s message of peace, reconciliation and dialogue through the performing arts resonates deeply with me,” said Serrano. “I applaud the work of the organizers, the participants, and the people of Cuba who turned out in such amazing numbers.”
When asked about the concert, President Obama said it surely wasn’t a bad thing, but didn’t want to overemphasize its effect on bilateral relations, AFP reported.
“I certainly don’t think it hurts US-Cuban relations, these kinds of cultural exchanges,” said Obama.
“I wouldn’t overstate the degree that it helps,” Obama said.
U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS
Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, joined U.S. Tour Operators Association President Robert Whitley and National Tour Association President Lisa Simon in New York on Monday to promote travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens, Travel Weekly reported.
“We’re here because there’s a new wind blowing in America about lifting the travel ban on Cuba,” Congressman Farr told Travel Agent Central. “The new wind is that Obama got elected, and got elected in Florida, and won the vote of Cuban-Americans under the age of 32. The future of Cuban-American relationships by that generation is expressed in their interest in normalizing trade and normalizing travel- particularly travel.”
Legislation to end a ban on Americans traveling to Cuba has enough support in the U.S. House of Representatives to win approval by year-end, Farr told Bloomberg News. The legislation to let U.S. citizens resume travel to the Caribbean island is very close to having the 218 votes in the House it needs to pass, said Farr, a co-sponsor of the legislation.
“It is believed we can get to this before the end of the year,” Farr. “We haven’t had a policy about Cuba. We’ve had policies about getting votes in Florida and Obama changed that by getting those votes.”
“If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily,” he said. “But if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”
U.S. Tour Operators Association President Robert Whitley and National Tour Association President Lisa Simon were denied a license to travel to the island by the U.S. government. (Click here to view Whitley’s rejection letter.)
Their travels would have included meetings with representatives of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade, Chamber of Commerce, Ministry of Tourism and other organizations involved in Cuban tourism.
The two notified Congressman Sam Farr (D.-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, who said: “That’s just wrong,”
The State Department on Monday denied a visa for the President of Cuba’s National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, who had been invited to participate in the 39th legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus this week, reported Cubaencuentro.com.
Alarcón’s office said that he was invited by the President of the Black Caucus, Barbara Lee, to attend the conference beginning on Wednesday, but received the denial notice on Monday.
Lee led a delegation to Cuba in April and met with Fidel and Raul Castro.
Four Cuban marine scientists were able to visit the United States last week, the Miami Herald reported. Dan Whittle, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund and the sponsor of the trip, said that the fact that the four scientists received visas in less than two months is “precedent-setting” after years of very little academic and scientific exchange.
Between 30 and 40 American scientists are expected to visit Cuba for an upcoming marine science conference this year, the Herald reported. Guillermo Garcia Montero, the director of Cuba’s national aquarium, says he saw U.S. participants at the conference diminish from more than 60 participants in 1997 to just three in 2006.
Scientists in both countries see collaboration on issues of marine science as crucial. Luis Barrera Canizo, a specialist in international cooperation at Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, said the importance of the exchange cannot be overstated.
“It’s not just an interest, it’s a necessity for both countries to try to advance the cooperation on environmental issues. For the good of both countries, and humanity,” said Canizo.
Singer Harry Belafonte, speaking to the media during a trip to Cuba last week, said that he is disappointed with Obama’s changes in policy thus far but has hope for the future: “The policy toward Cuba – yes, I like a lot of people am disappointed…We’re waiting to see what does change really mean, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that the best is yet to come.”
Belafonte, known as the ‘King of Calypso,’ is 82 years old and has been a social activist since the Civil Rights Movement. He was visiting the island with actor Danny Glover to inaugurate a new center that promotes Caribbean cinema. He also planned on attending Juanes’ Paz Sin Fronteras Havana concert. “I’m absolutely delighted that the young artist from Colombia wanted this and took the game this far in spite of all the threats. He stood in his own space of courage and wouldn’t be intimidated.”
Castro urges Cuban citizens to ‘rethink’ socialism
Reuters reported that the Cuban president has called for citizens to discuss and debate Cuban socialism. Authorities have circulated a 10-point agenda for thousands of open-ended meetings to take place over the next month throughout the country, from workplaces and universities to community organizations.
The debate is associated with Raul Castro’s push to revitalize the economy, and open the possibilities of eliminating longstanding food ration systems, heavily subsidized utilities, and transportation and meals and work and universities, among other things.
The discussion guide makes clear that questioning the one-party political system or calling for the restoration of capitalism are not part of the agenda. However, it does ask for openness and honesty in the debate: “It is important that the meetings are characterized by absolute freedom of criteria, the sincerity of participants and respect for differing opinions.”
According to Reuters, Cuban citizens have mixed responses, with some believing that it’s a sincere effort to involve them in changing their lives, while others suspect it is a maneuver to get them to buy into austerity measures that have already been decided on.
Fidel Castro praises Obama on climate change
Fidel Castro praised Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, in which he called for action on climate change and admitting that rich nations have a particular responsibility to lead, the Associated Press reported. Castro made the comments in one of his reflections published in the Granma and other state media outlets.
Obama acknowledged that the United States had been slow to act on climate change, but said Washington was now prepared to be a full partner as the world confronts the threat.
Castro called the statements “brave” and said no other American head of state would have had the courage to make similar remarks.
Castro also wrote that the admission of America’s past errors “was without a doubt a brave gesture.” He did, however, go on to criticize the United States for continually expanding the military and aggressive economic foreign policy.
You can read Castro’s reflection here.
Details Emerge of Cold War Nuclear Threat by Cuba
In the early 1980s, Fidel Castro was suggesting a Soviet nuclear strike against the United States until Moscow dissuaded him by explaining how the radioactive cloud resulting from such a strike would also devastate Cuba, according to newly released documents, the New York Times reported.
The documents, released by the National Security Archive, a privately run research group at the George Washington University, focus on a two-volume study, “Soviet Intentions 1965-1985,” which was prepared in 1995 by a Pentagon contractor and based on extensive interviewing of former top Soviet military officials, the Times reported.
The Cuba revelations in the study are attributed to Andrian A. Danilevich, a Soviet general staff officer from 1964 to 1990 and director of the staff officers who wrote the Soviet Union’s final reference guide on strategic and nuclear planning.
The study quotes Danilevich as saying that in the early 1980s, Mr. Castro “pressed hard for a tougher Soviet line against the U.S. up to and including possible nuclear strikes.” He said that the Soviets “had to actively disabuse him of this view by spelling out the ecological consequences for Cuba of a Soviet strike against the U.S.” That information, the general concluded, “changed Castro’s positions considerably.”
Cuba’s filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office have been rising significantly since 2000, according to El Nuevo Herald. Records show that since the PTO records went digital in 1975, Cuba has been granted 74 patents in a variety of fields.
Experts attribute the new uptick in patents to the rapid expansion of the biotech industry in Cuba, while the majority of patents from the 1970s and 80s covered agricultural advancements. Despite the increase, Cuba still holds a comparatively low number of patents in relation to other countries.
Havana has retained the right to file for U.S. patents and trademarks because President John F. Kennedy exempted intellectual property when he tightened the trade embargo on Cuba in 1962.
Around the Region:
Protests as ousted Honduran president returns
Honduran troops and police clashed on Tuesday with hundreds of supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya outside Brazil’s embassy where he took refuge.
In addition, Human Rights Watch released a new report on human rights abuses police waged against Zelaya supporters outside of the Brazilian embassy.
Major military weapons purchases by Brazil and Venezuela won’t spur an arms race in South America and are necessary to protect borders and natural resources, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Friday.
Many countries in the region – most recently Mexico – have decriminalized small amounts of drugs for personal use. The moves have followed decisions by left-leaning governments to limit cooperation with the US in recent years.
Cuban-American Scholars React to Havana Concert, Diverse Education
“The U.S. and Cuba are in a phase of trying to get to a better place,” said Dr. Julia Sweig, the director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The entire hemisphere is pushing on Washington to open a new chapter with Cuba and pushing Cuba to open up to the world.”
Since taking office, Obama – who called the nearly half-century U.S. embargo on Cuba a “miserable failure” as a candidate for Senate – has largely followed the lead of his predecessors, extending just this month a near total prohibition on trade and travel with Cuba for most U.S. citizens, declaring the embargo “in the national interest of the United States”.
End the Travel Ban to Cuba, El Diario NY
The only country that the United States government bans travel to is Cuba. It is time, once and for all, to end this ban.
It was Day 3 of our self-guided biking tour of Cuba. We were lost, and everyone — including a baseball team playing by the side of the road — was trying to help. We had arrived in Cuba on a late-night flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, staying that first night in the home of a friendly, fast-talking couple who rented us a room in their bright blue Havana apartment and kindly stored our bicycle boxes until our return seven days later.