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Cuba's Real Revolution

The Peace Without Borders concert, organized by Colombian superstar Juanes, was a historical moment for Cuba. But the real change is happening right here in the U.S., among the Miami exiles.

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You’ve seen ‘em: the crazy Cubans, the flag and placard-waving anti-Commies who shout down any and all opposition, the red-faced exiles who cluster outside Versailles Restaurant in Miami—the epicenter of Cuban-American mayhem—whenever Cuba’s in the news. TV stations love ‘em: They provide great footage of grown men and women screaming, giving each other the finger and threatening violence.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Versailles last Sunday. This time, the gathering was provoked by Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders), a mega-concert in Havana headlined by Colombian rocker Juanes. More than a million (mostly young) people crowded Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion. (Naturally, it was ignored by most U.S. media, though Cuba provided free rights worldwide.)

This time, it was the crazies who were shouted down. And they were shouted down by none other than other Cubans—young Miami Cubans who passionately supported the event in Havana. By the end of the evening, the anti-Juanes crowd—mostly older Cubans—had been pushed across the street from Versailles.

I know that for those outside the Cuban community, this doesn’t sound like much. But this little incident may well be the beginning of a significant change in the exile community—the kind of change that may help propel not just better Cuba-U.S. relations but, hopefully, a change in Cuba, too.

Let me explain: Nothing has divided the Cuban-American like the Havana concert since Elian Gonzalez, the kid who showed up floating off Florida on a raft Thanksgiving Day 1999. And like the Elian affair, this one broke down generationally as well: Many older exiles, particularly those with longer residence in the U.S., felt deceived by Juanes’ decision to go to Cuba to play his music. For them, any collaboration with the Cuban government is seen as betrayal. Younger Cubans—whether U.S. born or more recent arrivals—were mostly stunned by what they saw and heard in Havana.

As was I, watching on my laptop from my home in Oakland.

I’m Cuban-American, Cuban-born, an exile who arrived on U.S. shores at 6 on a stolen boat. I grew up, like many Cuban kids, with Cuba ever present, almost obsessively so. But the constant drumbeat about Cuba from my parents had an unexpected effect on me: I wanted to go to Cuba, a country I barely remembered, and in 1995, contrary to my family’s wishes, I did. Since then, I’ve gone back so many times I’ve literally lost track. I’m the rare Cuban-American who feels more at home in Havana than in Miami. This past June, I became one of about a dozen exile writers who have had a book published in Cuba: Aguas & Otros Cuentos (Editorial Letras Cubanas)—a first for me.

In other words, I believe in exchange, in people-to-people contact, in Cubans talking to each other. I don’t want the U.S., or anyone else, meddling in our affairs. So when Juanes announced his plans for Paz Sin Fronteras, I was skeptical about both his intentions and the possible impact of the show.

I’d met Juanes—a 17-time Latin Grammy winner—on numerous occasions and while I liked him fine and enjoyed his music, he’d never struck me as a deep political thinker. Plus, his thing was Colombia, his native country, and even on that topic, most of his songs and pronouncements struck me as hopeful but vague. The first Paz Sin Fronteras concert was on the Colombian/Venezuelan border, a paean to peace at ground zero of a possible war. But OK … what, exactly, did he have to do with Cuba or Cubans (other than seven years of residence in Miami)? Frankly, I thought that his ego had run amok.

Then there’s the fact that despite Juanes’ bold pronouncements, the lineup didn’t have much to do with representing different Cuban points of view: The foreign artists were mainly from Europe and South America. The only Americans were Puerto Ricans Danny Rivera, a longtime supporter of the Revolution, and Olga Tañon, a curvy merengue singer not known for her politics.