Friday, September 25, 2009

Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders)

A free “Paz Sin Fronteras” (Peace Without Borders) concert was held in Havana’s la Plaza de la Revolución José Martí (Jose Marti Revolution Plaza) last Sunday, Sept 20 in Cuba. The concert was organized and led by Juanes (Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez), a Columbia-born Latin pop superstar and social activist, a 17-time Latin Grammy winner. More than 1 million people attended the concert by some estimates. Keeping in mind that the total population of Cuba is 11+ millions people and Havana has about 2 million residents, children and seniors included. Here is a Youtube video of the first 10 minutes of the concert.

According to Wikipedia, Plaza de la Revolucion is one of the largest city plazas in the world with an area of 4.6 square miles that is about 10 times the size of the National Mall in Washington D.C. and 1/6 of Tiananmen Square of Beijing. It was built prior to Cuban Revolution of 1959 in memory of the Cuban nationalist poet and (Latin America) independence hero José Martí. Across from the statue and monument of José Martí at the north side of the Plaza, there is a giant mural of the Argentina-born Che Guevara, the most popular and well-known romantic figure of Latin America revolutionary in 20th century. More than 40 years has passed after his capture and execution in Bolivia in 1967 at an age of 39, fascination with Che is still going strong with many books written and films made about him including The Motorcycle Diaries.

José Martí, on the other hand, is perhaps less known in pop culture but immensely important in history. He is considered Apostle of Cuban Independence and a great poet and writer. Unbeknownst to many, there is a statue of José Martí (see the public domain photo on the net at right) at the 59th street Artists Gate entrance of the Central Park of New York City. It was created by sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington in 1959 as a gift to Cuba government for the presentation to the people of New York City right before the revolution. It depicts Marti was fatally wounded atop his horse at the 1985 Dos Rios battle against Spanish. Of course, practically everyone has heard the Cuban unofficial national anthem Guantanamera whose lyrics was adapted from a Jose Marti’s poem. Here is the video of a performance by the legendary American folk singer, songwriter and activist, now 90 year old, Pete Seeger with a 12 string guitar.

There have been plenty of controversies surrounding the “Paz Sin Fronteras” (Peace Without Borders) concert as one might expect. Indeed, there has been a forever debate of if staging a cultural event in a country under an authoritarian regime is a good thing or not. The last notable event that I can recall was the Feb ‘08 visit of New York Philharmonic to North Korea. Then of course one can trace back to the famous 1971 Ping-Pong diplomacy when the U.S. Table Tennis team accepted the invitation by Communist China and visited Beijing that paved the way for the later visit of President Nixon and the normalization. The opponents invariably argue that the world must isolate and punish the oppressive regimes inclusive of cultural exchanges. They argue that any visit or gesture would be a betrayal to the suffering people and give a wrong signal that the world could be tolerant of the regime.

I don’t agree with such a view. Even though it might take a long time to see visible impacts from those visits and exchanges, we must not underestimate people’s intelligence and hunger for the pursuit of happiness wherever and whatever they are. Through the human history, oppressive governments and rulers without exception have been most fearful of independent intellectuals, writers, and artists. Because they know full well that when people’s mind are touched and opened by music, arts, or literature, fear will be replaced by hope, ignorance will be replaced by imagination, and herd-like collective behavior will be replaced by individual expression and creativity. Doesn’t it defy the logic then if one wants to help those dictators to further isolate and deprive people the opportunity to see the outside world, no matter how small that window is?

Over 20 years ago, a good friend of mine in telecom business once told me of his dream of democratizing Communist China quickly. He would employ satellites to broadcast TV programs to mainland China. In his calculation, the sheer exposure of the outside world to people in China would be sufficient to start the spiraling demands for more economic freedom, democracy, and ultimately an alternate government system. With the ubiquitous reach of Internet, what he has envisioned has been well underway in last decade and there is no return now for China. The doors and windows needs to be opened for Cuba, North Korea, and alike. Music and arts are the most powerful media and platform to achieve freedom. They transcend the language and cultural gaps. They inspire and unite people. I would love to see more concerts like “Paz Sin Fronteras” (Peace Without Borders) be held in many places of the world.

By the way, U.S. has imposed travel ban and embargo since early 60's. President Obama has been pursuing a different and more sensible policy regarding U.S.-Cuba relations. On April 13, 2009, he had loosened the travel ban and now allowing Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba. For everyone else, the closest one can travel to in U.S. for now is Key West of Florida, the southernmost point of U.S. continent which is 90 miles away from Cuba. If you vacation in south Florida, don’t miss it. It is a charming town where one of the greatest American writers Ernest Hemingway used to live. In addition to touring the Hemingway house, you can visit 33rd President Harry Truman’s (1945-1953) Little White House where he spent many winter days during his presidency.

Talk to you soon!

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