Sitting on the leather couch of her Miami living room, Uva de Aragon is surrounded by mementos of an island she knew only by memory. For 50 years, de Aragon has undergone the nightly exercise of mapping and memorizing every detail that adorned the hometown she left as a budding 15-year-old.
“My mother was a beautiful lady, unfortunately she had her leg amputated, but she was still beautiful. That is how I think of Havana, still beautiful with a few scars,” said de Aragon, who is the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Her exercise proved useful when she turned on the television last Sunday night to see Colombian rocker Juanes in Havana singing: “Los hermanosya no se debenpelear, esmomento de recapacitar, estiempo de cambiar — it’s time to change,” just a few miles from where she was born.
The emotion of watching more than a million Cubans wearing white and echoing chants of peace in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución brought tears to de Aragon’s eyes as she called her two American-born daughters between commercials.
“It was so beautiful,” she said. “Beautiful compared to the usual military atmosphere…this was an atmosphere of freedom, of happiness, of movement, of joy and of opening.”
The concert called “Peace without Borders,” organized by Juanes through both the U.S. and Cuban governments, symbolizes the shifting sentiment of the Cuban-exile community towards reconciliation, a significant departure from long-held resentment against Castro’s regime, experts say.
“The U.S. and Cuba are in a phase of trying to get to a better place,” said Dr. Julia Sweig, the director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The entire hemisphere is pushing on Washington to open a new chapter with Cuba and pushing Cuba to open up to the world.”
Sweig said Juanes and 15 other artists, including Puerto Rican singer Olga Tañon and Spanish pop star Miguel Bosé, are part of an increasingly important Latin American voice demanding change to the policies that separate two sides of the same family — the Cuban and Cuban-American communities.
Tañon opened the concert with a message from a father to the daughter in attendance he hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. The human drama of the 90-mile chasm, resonated with Cubans in both Miami and Havana, de Aragon said.
“One million people heard that. It’s an acknowledgement that Tañon is singing in the context of a family that is split, a country that is split politically,” she said. “We have been buying into 50 years of separation caused by a human regime, do we have to continue doing so or we should be working towards healing those wounds?”
American policies concerning travel restrictions and the economic embargo impede Cuba’s cultural emancipation, said Lillian Manzor, director of the Latin American studies at the University of Miami. She said it’s about time the U.S. change its strategy and engage Cuba in cultural events like the concert.
Manzor, who has worked on several theater projects with Cuba, said she questions why the U.S. has closed off relations with Cuba while engaging in cultural exchanges with other countries with worse human rights records.
“In 50 years, we have not been able to change one iota by acting the way we’ve acted,” Manzor said. “Sending cultural delegations may not change policy at the Capitol, but it could initiate change from within the society.”
But any semblance of cooperation with the Communist government is heresy for some Cuban-Americans, who harshly criticized the concert, accusing Juanes of aligning himself with the regime.
“That community is a small fraction of the Cuban exile community that opposes these kinds of dialogue,” said Manzor, who lamented the absence of famous Cuban-Americans like Gloria Estefan and Willie Chirino. “It’s a small faction, but they are a powerful one.”
The controversy played out in Miami on Sunday, as protesters lined the streets, both for and against the concert. Spanish language television reported Juanes’ family and others had even received death threats.
University of Miami communications professor Rafael Lima said the historic intransigence of the exile community has waned in the last decade as the older generation grows older and younger Cubans gain political power. For a majority of Cuban-Americans the concert marked an impressive step forward since the Pope John Paul II’s visit to Havana in 1998.
“I think that there is huge power in music to change the government, the same way literature and cinema does,” said Lima, who produced an Emmy-nominated documentary about his trip back to Cuba. “I think a person who sings a song on a stage sends a message and is sending it to an enormous audience that reverberates and has political influence.”
Though she still yearns for her country and considers the Cuban revolution a “failed project,” like many other exiles, de Aragon said the artists understood the difference between supporting a government and loving a people.
As the sun went down Sunday over the concert, spilling a cascade of orange-red light on the horizon, de Aragon said a new feeling descended on her, whispering the words: “Dame unaisla en el medio del mar, llàmalalibertad.” (Give me an island named liberty in the middle of the sea…)
“It was like fresh air coming into the country,” she said. “I could almost feel the breeze in spite of the heat, going through Havana, Cuba, and ending here in Miami. It left the kind of feeling only something fresh and new could bring — promise and hope.”
*An earlier version of this story mis-translated the name of the concert, “Paz Sin Fronteras” as “Freedom without borders.” The correct translation is “Peace without borders,” as it is stated in the captions.