Juanes concert latest front in Havana-Miami row

HAVANA Fri Sep 18, 2009 1:07pm EDT

HAVANA (Reuters) - Half a million people are expected to fill Havana's Revolution Square Sunday for a concert that is supposed to be about peace, but has become another front in the war of words between Havana and the Cuban exile community in Miami.

Colombian musician Juanes, a winner of 17 Grammy awards, has worked with Cuba's communist authorities to put together the event in which he and 14 other musical acts from six countries will play for free for the Cuban masses.

Anti-communist Cuban exiles in Miami have pilloried Juanes, accusing him of pandering to the Cuban government. Juanes lives on Miami's exclusive Key Biscayne.

Miguel Bose from Spain, Olga Tanon from the U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico, Jovanotti from Italy and Silvio Rodriguez and Los Van Van from Cuba are part of the lineup mostly made up of Spanish-language stars.

Juanes has said the point of his "Peace Without Borders" concert is not political, but to encourage "hope and dreams."

"I am not a communist. I am not aligned with the government," he told the Miami Herald newspaper.

"Our only message is one of peace, of humanitarianism, of tolerance, a message of interacting with the people."

Many in Miami's Cuban exile community do not buy it. They assert that Juanes is helping legitimize a Cuban government they have never forgiven for turning the Caribbean island into a communist state.

Last month, an exile group called Mambisa Watch staged a small protest against the concert on Calle Ocho, the main street of Miami's Little Havana. They burned a black T-shirt, referring to a popular Juanes song called "The Black Shirt," and they smashed CDs of his music with hammers.

The group said this week it will return to Calle Ocho on Sunday with a steamroller to crush CDs of musicians who take part in the Juanes concert.

Even some of the city's most ardent foes of the Cuban government chastised the Calle Ocho protest, saying it looked like something communists or Nazis would do. They complained that it had made the exile community in general look bad.

It did not help that police had to put a watch on his home after he received a death threat on his Twitter account.

'GREAT PUBLICITY COUP'

The turmoil in Miami has had the opposite effect of what was likely intended. It has generated greater interest in the concert and been a bonanza for the Cuban government.

More than 160 foreign journalists have been accredited to cover the event, the Cuban government said, and it will be shown on television or the Internet for anyone in the world who wants to pick up the signal from satellite.

"This has been a great publicity coup for Juanes. In the past few days I've seen a range of Washington policy wonks and aging exile leaders discussing Juanes, and I'm pretty sure most of them had never heard of him before this," said Dan Erikson at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

"The (Miami) protesters have handed the Cuban government a small propaganda victory on a silver platter," said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

The concert, which follows performances in Havana this summer by Britain's Royal Ballet and precedes an expected appearance in the Cuban capital by the New York Philharmonic orchestra next month, comes as U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to patch up long-broken U.S.-Cuba relations.

Obama has made some moves to lift curbs on family travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and on remittances sent by them. But Havana chided the U.S. president this week for not doing more to end the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island.

Even a number of Cuban dissidents have backed the Juanes show. A group of 36 current and former political prisoners in Cuba arrested in a 2003 crackdown put their names to a statement saying the concert "is a great opportunity to advance reconciliation between all Cubans and to leave behind the hatreds that for many years have poisoned our homeland."

In an announcement about the concert, which will mark the United Nations' International Day of Peace set for Monday, Cuba's government urged everyone who comes to wear white "as a symbol of peace." And the government assured that all those involved had agreed the concert "will have no political messages of any kind."

One dissident, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, said the Miami opponents were not completely wrong when they said the Cuban government would use the concert to burnish its image.

"They want to manipulate this activity for their propaganda," he said. "(But) we are (supporting the concert) because hate is a weapon of totalitarianism."

(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham)