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.
And the Cubans? Silvio Rodriguez, the Revolution’s great balladeer; Los Van Van, the Revolution’s party-band extraordinaire; X Alfonso, funkster son of card-carrying Commies; and Amaury Pérez, the Revolution’s great suck-up. The only guy on the bill who’d ever doubted anything was Carlos Varela, who’s known for his contestaire songs questioning revolutionary life.
Give me a break.
Where were Cuba’s true rebels? Where was, for example, Frank Delgado, whose repertoire is full of songs about the very fractured families that the concert was supposed to be reaching out to?
The only Cubans from the exile community—the Cubans set up to represent the 1.5 million Cubans off the island—were the Orishas, hip-hoppers who left Cuba less out of political disagreement than because the cultural establishment kept marginalizing their work, and Cucu Diamantes, the lead singer of a much-decimated Yerba Buena. Missing in action were Juanes’ Miami neighbors and friends Gloria Estefan, Willy Chirino, Isaac Delgado—all of whom have fanatical followings on the island. (Both Estefan and Chirino made statements praising Juanes’ sincerity but concerned that the Cuban government would turn the show into a revolutionary rally.)
In the days leading up to the concert, Juanes promised that there would be no sloganeering, no hosts, no talking, just music. He said it would not be political.
But of course it was.
The surprise was the way it was political.
Who could have expected Tañon to start off with “Bandolero,” an ancient hit whose lyrics struck an immediate chord with the crowd at the Plaza: “Malo, descarado, bandolero, brujo” (Bad man, shameless, outlaw, witchman)? The crowd visibly twittered. Then she said hello to a woman in Cuba from her daughter in Miami—family that hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. She mentioned the exile community. (This proved so powerful that Maria Elvira, one of Miami’s fire-eating anti-commie anchors had Tañon on her morning show after the concert—after weeks of vilification—to thank her for that and then broke down in sobs).
X Alfonso, whose most famous song is about how he’s not going to leave the island, chanted against manipulation and control and called for free thinking.
Spanish balladeer Miguel Bosé dueted with Varela, and Varela, when his turn came, stressed over and over, that his songs were for “Cubans everywhere.”
Bosé dueted with Juanes, too, on a song they’d recorded before, “Nada Particular,” but it had special meaning here: “Dame una isla en el medio del mar/ llamala libertad” (Give me an island in the middle of the sea/call her freedom).
And then there was Juanes. His relatively short set was made up of well-known hits, almost all of a vague political bent. There was one song exhorting the release of political prisoners in Colombia “and everywhere.” But the banter—“You’re the future!” “It’s time for change!”—was loaded.
And by concert’s end, he did the unthinkable. First, a shoutout to Silvito El Libre (Silvio Rodriguez’ dissident hip-hopper son) and Los Aldeanos, probably Cuba’s most popular dissident group, utterly banned on the island but all over YouTube. Then he shouted “Cuba Libre,” not once but twice. Because the concert took place at the Plaza de la Revolución, this was especially stunning. No one, not even Pope John Paul II, had ever uttered such words there. And then, like a man possessed, Juanes started shouting: “Por una sola familia cubana!” (For a united Cuban family), over and over and over.
It was a breathtaking moment.
Why was this so special? Because regardless of the merits of the Revolution, Cuba has been ruled by the same family, by the same aging military men, for half a century (if we in the U.S. were clamoring for change after only eight years of Bush, imagine the fever in Cuba). And because, regardless of the merits of the exile community, the tactics used to confront the Revolution have produced nothing but pain and isolation on both sides of the straits of Florida.
A new generation in Cuba wants change—maybe not a wholesale revamping of their system, but inclusion in the system, access to the Internet, to travel. A new generation of Cuban-Americans wants a normal, healthy relationship with its home country, regardless of their system of governance. The changing of the guard at Versailles was not just symbolic.
That it took a Colombian rocker to introduce us to each other, to put us Cubans on the spot (believe me, this has become a real put-up or shut-up moment) and make us talk to each other, with the whole world watching … well, it’s kind of embarrassing.
What will happen? I don’t know. Today, Juanes takes his act to the UN, where he’ll perform with Alicia Keys at the Clinton Global Initiative. I’ve yet to talk about the concert with my own 78-year-old mother. I know better; I think I know better. Or maybe I don’t. There’s a new video on YouTube: An older Cuban exile faces the camera and says that she had been originally against the concert, but that she now sees that she was wrong. She offers Juanes an apology. For me, that’s as stunning as hearing Juanes say “Cuba Libre!” at the Plaza de Revolucion. Both acts make me hopeful. Which is why I’m keeping my eye on that street corner at Versailles.
Achy Obejas is an author whose most recent book is Ruins, a novel about Cuba in the Special Period. She was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. by boat in 1963. Since then she has returned to Cuba innumerable times.