MIAMI One of Communist-ruled Cuba's best-known singers, Pablo Milanes, said in quoted comments he would like to see more freedom to protest on the island as he prepared for a controversial concert this month in Miami.
Miami's Spanish language El Nuevo Herald newspaper published an interview on Sunday with the 68-year-old two-time Grammy award winner, whose melodic and evocative ballads are well known in Latin America and internationally.
Milanes' planned August 27 concert in Miami, a bastion of anti-communist Cuban exiles in the United States, has touched off a storm of discord between those who criticize him as a stooge of the communist government in Havana and many fans and supporters who defend his right to perform in Miami.
Ties between the United States and Cuba remain cool but cultural exchanges of Cuban and U.S. artists and musicians have increased as U.S. President Barack Obama has boosted people-to-people contacts through special licenses that can be granted under the longrunning U.S. economic embargo on Cuba.
Milanes, a privileged celebrity in Cuba where authorities allow him to travel and perform widely outside the island, said his Miami concert sought "peace and love" and he wanted to "hold out a hand to those who extend their hand to me".
"I'm not going to criticize anyone and I don't want to be criticized. I simply want to be heard as a man who sings his songs," he told El Nuevo Herald.
Describing himself as a "progressive, tolerant, left-wing revolutionary", Milanes made clear he believed there should more freedom of expression in Cuba, including the right to protest, and more freedom for Cubans to travel abroad.
"Every human being has the right to protest, and, what's more, has the duty to say what he thinks," he said.
He indicated he felt economic reforms introduced by Cuban President Raul Castro, which have opened up more private enterprise, had not gone far enough to promote other freedoms.
"When one thinks of the reforms, you think they're going to come united with a series of freedoms, such as freedom of expression, but it's not happening like that," El Nuevo Herald quoted Milanes as saying. It said he gave the interview by phone from Spain, where he was performing.
The U.S. government says Cuba continues to persecute dissidents who oppose its one-party communist system.
Washington has also condemned the imprisonment by Havana of a U.S. aid contractor who brought Internet technology equipment to the island -- where such technology is strictly controlled -- while traveling there on tourist visa.
Cuba describes political dissidents as mercenaries and traitors in the pay of Washington.
Milanes said Cuba's state-controlled media suffered from "self-censorship".
He also criticized Cuban government curbs on travel to and from the island, saying those born in Cuba should be able to visit their homeland freely, while Cuban citizens should be allowed to leave if they wished "without needing a card or passing through a bureaucratic filter".
Milanes said Cuban officials discriminated against blacks in the multi-racial population, adding this had created "castes" and privileges passed on inside white families.
The singer, who in 2006 sent a letter to then ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro wishing him a speedy recovery, said he himself was persecuted in Cuba in his early 20s, when he was sent to a military work camp along with other "freethinkers". Also sent to such camps were homosexuals, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and common criminals.
Several Cuban exile groups have asked Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez to halt Milanes' planned concert in the city, and have warned of protests, but supporters of the initiative say it could help promote reconciliation among Cubans.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Rueda, Editing by Jackie Frank)