- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

HAVANA | Hundreds of thousands of Cubans flocked to sprawling Revolution Plaza on Sunday for an open-air “peace concert” headlined by Colombian rocker Juanes, an event criticized by some Cuban-Americans who say the performers are lending support to the island’s communist government simply by showing up.

Organizers said they expected as many as a half-million people at the four-hour concert under a broiling Havana sun, making the Colombian heartthrob’s visit the biggest by an outsider since Pope John Paul II’s 1998 tour.

Hundreds of public buses ferried young and old to the concert site, and the government laid on even more transportation, hoping for a large turnout.

Most concertgoers wore white — to symbolize peace — and some held up signs reading “Peace on Earth” and “We Love You Juanes.”

Puerto Rican singer Olga Tanon opened the concert with a loud shout-out to the crowd.

“Together, we are going to make history,” she said, as the plaza erupted in cheers.

Even before the show started, colorful umbrellas sprouted like flowers across the wide square as revelers shaded themselves from the unrelenting sun. Ambulances set up behind the stage treated those who had succumbed to dehydration and other ailments, many before a single note was played.

“We are going to stay as long as we have the strength,” said Cristina Rodriguez, a 43-year-old nurse accompanied by her teenage son, Felix. They and thousands of others had arrived hours before the concert to get a good spot, ignoring government warnings not to turn up until noon.

“We’ve been here since three in the morning waiting for everyone, waiting for Juanes and for Olga Tanon,” said Luisa Maria Canales, an 18-year-old engineering student. “I’m a little tired, but I am more excited.”

That excitement does not extend to some across the Florida Straits, where Juanes has endured death threats, CD-smashing protests and boycotts since his decision to hold the “Peace Without Borders” concert in Havana.

Police in Key Biscayne, Fla., say they are keeping watch over the homes of both the rocker and his manager, Fernan Martinez Maecha.

Still, the criticism from Florida is far from universal. Spanish-language stations covered the event, and several exile groups have voiced support, describing it as a rare chance for Cubans to get a glimpse of the outside world.

Some Cuban officials have used the opportunity to deride U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, and the 47-year trade embargo in particular. But Juanes has insisted the concert is about music, not politics.

“It is one more grain of sand for improving relations through art,” the singer said upon arriving in Havana late Friday.

Of the threats from Miami, he said only: “It is a city that I love.”

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