HAVANA, Cuba – Rock-and-roll diplomacy came to the communist isle on a smoldering afternoon, as hundreds of thousands of Cubans filled the Plaza of the Revolution on Sunday and sang along to a dozen international musical acts led by the Colombian singer and peace activist Juanes.
The free “Peace without Borders” concert was criticized by hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami as a propaganda coup for the Castro brothers, and that it might have been. But for thousands of young Cubans, it was a rare treat to hear a line-up of global Latin music stars, such as Olga Tanon of Puerto Rico and Miguel Bose of Spain.
Under the watchful gaze of a huge mural of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and beneath the socialist slogan “Always Toward Victory!” on the side of the Ministry of Interior building, there was no trouble from the mostly young crowd. Many were dressed in white, in keeping with the peaceful vibe.
From the stage, framed by giant posters of a white dove, musicians offered hopeful but admittedly vague appeals for change, solidarity and, of course, peace. Bose told the crowd that “the greatest dream we can live is to dream the dream of peace.” He also announced that there were more than 1 million people in the square, though there were no official estimates.
Tanon shouted that she brought greetings from Miami – home of many Cuban exiles who live in opposition to the Cuban government – and no one in the crowd booed, but instead whistled and cheered.
The United States has pursued a policy of economic embargo and diplomatic freeze against Cuba for almost 50 years, hoping to topple the communist-led government, to no avail. Despite promises by President Barack Obama, change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship has been slow in coming.
In an interview aired Sunday on the Spanish-language network Univision, Obama acknowledged that the concert would only go so far. “I certainly don’t think it hurts U.S.-Cuban relations,” he said. “I wouldn’t overstate the degree that it helps.”
The plaza is iconic as the scene of some of Fidel Castro’s biggest rallies and longest speeches, though he has not been seen in public for almost three years, after intestinal surgery. Anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami have voiced heated opposition to the concert, saying it only served to support the communist government here, which would milk the event for publicity even as it imprisons hundreds of political dissidents.