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The Bumpy Road Towards a Peace Without Borders: Juanes, Cuba and its 13 Million Voices

10/25/2013 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

On September 20, 2009, Juanes headlined Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders) in Cuba -- a concert that gathered musicians from around the world to play at La Plaza de La Revolución in Havana. Now, 4 years later, filmmaker, Janelle Gueits, wants to tell the story behind the concert in her documentary 13 Million Voices -- a behind-the-scenes experience that is as tumultuous as any road towards peace.

That the journey is as important as the destination is a cliché, but one that is true in this case. Yrak Saenz, Cuban musician and hip-hop artist of the rap group Doble Filo, was in Cuba when the concert was happening and felt that he was witnessing something historic. But the momentousness of the concert had a double edge, just like the name of his band, and like so much having to do with Cuba. "It's time people know happened out of sight, which has nothing to do with the real essence of the concert," says Saenz.

For those not well-read in Cuban politics, Saenz's quote might be confusing. So, let's unpack it, at least so far as the Juanes concert is concerned. Juanes wanted to create a concert for peace in a place of contention: Cuba. He'd done this successfully the year before, in 2008, on the Simon Bolivar Bridge to celebrate the end of the Andean diplomatic Crisis. But the Cuban "bridge" turned out to be harder to locate. The "13 million voices" of Gueits' documentary are the voices of the Diaspora -- the number of Cubans inside and outside the island. And those voices, mixed with and clashing against the voices of the Castro regime can ring discordantly indeed.

Story goes that when Juanes began to talk to the Cuban government about the concert, the Cuban government leaked the news. Many consider this leak to have been an intentional stir of the proverbial Cuban-American pot. And let's just say the pot didn't just stir, it bubbled over.

Cuban-Americans in Miami were in an uproar. How could Juanes do this; go to Cuba and support a tyranny such as that of the Castro brothers in the name of "peace." Juanes has a home in Miami and rumors went around that Juanes' family, pregnant wife included, was being threatened by what the rest of the country likes to call the "Miami Mafia."

This Miami heat, however, was just the beginning. Juanes decided, given the reaction that was erupting all around him, to seek advice and possibly cancel the concert, according to Gueits. Which is when he contacted Roots of Hope. Roots of Hope is an organization whose goal, according to their website, is to "bridge the gap between Cubans on and off the island and raise awareness about their struggles." Here, finally, was the "bridge" it seemed. Janelle Gueits, the film's director and creator, is one of the co-founders of Roots of Hope, as his her brother, Chris Gueits, the film's producer.

According to the Gueits team and the footage of the film itself, Roots of Hope had a very real role in making this concert happen. They were the link to the Cuban community and many of them had been to Cuba before, knew the challenges that lay ahead, knew that Cuba was more than beaches and Mojitos; it was the place their parents came from and a place to which, many Cubans, could not return.

Juanes, himself, hardly ever speaks about the concert publicly. In fact, sources say that he suffered a kind of breakdown post-concert. After watching the film, I can clearly say that no one can blame him. In Cuba, Juanes was faced with the threats of a totalitarian state. The scenes in which Juanes grapples with this are the film's most captivating.

"I think that Juanes created the Paz Sin Fronteras Concert with genuine and very good intentions. The situation turned out to be far more stressful, controversial and complicated than he anticipated, both in Miami and Cuba" says Jordan Levin, a music critic who has been covering Juanes since his first album, "soon afterwards he went through a personal and professional crisis and the stress of the Cuba concert was one of those reasons." Juanes' wife had also just had a baby around the time of the concert.

As for Janelle Gueits, she's not done talking. 13 Million Voices, the film, is currently undergoing a crowd sourcing campaign whose goal is to tour the film. The Gueits sister-brother team have, appropriately, decided to go guerilla style, in essence, allowing people to decide how far and wide they can distribute their documentary.

This seems to be a point of conflict for the Paz Sin Fronteras organization. A spokesperson for the organization:

In staging the concerts, we often work with advocates that may hold disparate viewpoints, but come together in a working balance to create a united day of peace and entertainment for the public. While we are grateful for all that contribute their time to help stage the events, we cannot support or condone any party that later breaks with the spirit of cooperation and inflates their participation for monetary gain, a desire for personal visibility or to advance a personal agenda.

For me, as an ABC (American Born Cuban), this film, points of contention included, are significant and important -- they are an exploration of the struggles I grew up listening to and feeling -- struggles I believe should be shared. To me, it doesn't matter what side of the discussion you are on -- ultimately, the goal is not to erase the "sides" of an argument, but to understand them.

Liset Alea, a Cuban-born musician who sang at the concert, says this of the film: "it's not necessarily just a 'Cuban' story, it's a story about making the impossible happen, struggling against the odds to defy the skeptics. It's relevant to anyone anywhere on the planet who has experienced censorship [and] abuse." To that I would add anyone who has ever worked for peace anywhere, at any time.