"Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Those words by Natalie Maines at the Dixie Chicks' 2003 London concert created a firestorm within the center of the country music world. The women were blacklisted on radio, their CDs were destroyed, and they became pariahs within Nashville and their own home state of Texas.
A similar situation is brewing within Latin music. Juanes (Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez) is a Colombian multi-platinum selling artist considered by Time Magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential in the World." His songs have themes of love and peace, from his early 2000 title "Fíjate Bien" which addressed the problem with land mines in his native country - to the most recent album which talks about change and peace globally.
Juanes's problems began after his announcement this month of a second "Peace Without Borders" concert to be held at Havana's Plaza de la Revolución on September 20, 2009. His first concert was at the Colombian/Venezuelan border. This immediately was met with sharp criticism from the Cuban American anti-Castro establishment, especially in the exile epicenter of South Florida. Protests have been orchestrated where people destroyed copies of his CDs, and Juanes has had round the clock police presence at his Miami home where he lives with his wife and children because of numerous death threats. Critics are calling him a communist and an enabler of the Castro regime. A recent poll by the DC based Cuba Study Group found 47% of Cuban Americans opposed the concert, with just 27% in support.
Miami is the "Nashville" of Latin Music, and many of the powers that be want Juanes to denounce the Castro regime as a condition to getting community support. So far he has resisted making any political statements. The pressure has also spread to artists who have confirmed to perform with Juanes, including Latin music superstar Olga Tanon of Puerto Rico. Cuban-Americans artists like singer Willy Chirino and actress María Conchita Alonso have come out to criticize the concert. The Cuban Government doesn't help matters by not allowing Cuban-American artists to organize their own concerts on the Island.
While the initial backlash against Juanes is similar to the one the Dixie Chick's experienced, Ms. Maines woes began because of a political statement about a current president while Juanes is simply holding a music concert. His situation is more like Bruce Springsteen's 1988 concert at the Berlin Wall. Some have attributed that concert as one of the catalysts to the wall coming down. Springsteen's goal for the event was not to make a statement but to play his music for people who did not have access to it before. According to Juanes, that is also his motivation for playing in Cuba.
There was no backlash against "The Boss" for his Berlin concert, so why are segments of the Cuban-American community so up in arms? One reason may be that hard-liners are struggling against a generational and political shift within South Florida and the rest of the country and are finding themselves on the loosing side of the long debate on US-Cuba relations.
This shift is palpable in the blogosphere and on the streets. Younger generations of Cuban Americans are more willing to discuss engagement with Cuba as a path toward Democracy. There is an understanding that the current isolation and embargo policies haven't worked. Castro has seen 10 American Presidents during his 50+ year reign.
Additionally, the hard-line exile community has lost influence politically. They supported the Republicans during the 2008 presidential election because they opposed Obama's engagement policies. Democrats owe little to this special interest group, and are focusing on things like healthcare and immigration which affect more segments of Latinos throughout the country.
This hasn't stopped the hard-liners from engaging in their version of book burning. The death threats to Juanes are particularly disturbing, especially as it seems antithetical to the general argument that the Castro government shouldn't be supported because of their treatment of political dissenters.
Despite the initial uproar, there is evidence that the Cuban/Miami "Cold War" is melting. Juanes has gotten support from prominent Miamians, like Latin music crossover pioneer and Cuban American Gloria Estefan. The artist himself talks about the support he's gotten from fans on his twitter page.
After the concert, we will see how strong the backlash becomes. Will it be on the level of the Dixie Chicks, where sales began to plummet and they had to deal with bans on country radio? To date no major radio station has said they were banning Juanes from their play lists. Perhaps Juanes' story will read less like "The Chicks" and more like Springsteen's in the end. Let's hope so.