MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban singer Pablo Milanes has not yet played a note of his planned August 27 concert in Miami but the event has already drummed up unharmonious debate among Cuban exiles between opponents and supporters of the event.
Milanes, 68, is a two-time Grammy award winner and one of communist-ruled Cuba's best known musicians, part of a privileged artistic elite on the Caribbean island who are allowed by authorities to freely travel and perform abroad. His scheduled concert in Miami will be his first in the south Florida stronghold of fiercely anti-communist Cuban exiles.
Hardline exile groups, including ex-political prisoners, have asked Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez to halt the performance, calling Milanes a stooge of Cuba's one-party government and saying Havana uses such events for propaganda purposes.
They plan to protest at the concert by the singer, who was granted a U.S. entry visa to travel to the United States.
"If he (Milanes) came here and he stayed like us, if he renounced the (Cuban) regime, then we would go see him," said Antonio Esquivel, president of the Cuban Patriotic Junta, a Miami exile group that opposes any rapprochement with Havana while communist rule remains there.
The concert controversy raging in local Spanish-language media has fueled a wider debate in the divided Cuban exile community over measures by U.S. President Barack Obama to increase "people-to-people" contacts with the island by allowing more cultural, artistic and religious exchanges.
The first group of Americans to tour Cuba through the more relaxed rules under a longrunning U.S. trade embargo received a warm welcome this month.
Although Washington-Havana ties remain frosty after decades of Cold War enmity, supporters of such freer travel and exchanges say they are more effective in promoting change in Cuba than the long tried U.S. policy of isolating the island.
Opponents of rapprochement dispute this. They argue such contacts bolster rather than undermine Cuba's communist rule and say events like the Milanes concert channel funds and prestige to Cuban President Raul Castro's government.
"We don't want more cultural exchanges," Esquivel said.
Rebuffing criticism, Hugo Cancio, the Cuban exile promoter of Milanes' upcoming concert in Miami, says "not a cent" of its revenues will go to the Cuban government, which would be a violation of the U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba.
In an argument that reflects the views of more moderate exiles who favor increased U.S.-Cuba ties, Cancio said Milanes' performance could help build bridges between Cubans on and off the island. He said all could share pride in a common culture.
"Not to do so is to cut ourselves off from the umbilical cord of our being Cuban," Cancio told Reuters.
Those who favor more exchanges with Cuba say opinion polls over the last decade have indicated an apparent shift in the more than 1 million-strong Cuban exile community in favor of more contacts, rather than punitive isolationist policies.
They point to a 2009 concert in Havana's Revolution Square whose lineup was led by Miami-based Colombian pop icon Juanes. Hardline exiles had pilloried Juanes for playing in Havana but a poll conducted among Cuban Americans after the event showed more than 50 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion.
"This is a sign that when we let these things happen, we break down barriers," Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group that lobbies for increased U.S.-Cuba contacts, told Reuters.
Milanes, whose melodic, evocative songs have won him a wide following across Latin America and internationally, has long been viewed as a loyal follower of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. But in recent years he has expressed cautious criticism of curbs on freedoms in Cuba.
He repeated this criticism in a Miami newspaper interview on Sunday, but said of his coming concert: "I simply want to be heard as a man who sings his songs.
On the streets of Miami, younger Cuban Americans said they felt politics should not stop Milanes from performing.
"I like some of his songs, even if I don't agree with his ideology," said Lucy, a store clerk in her thirties who refused to give her last name, fearing her comments might offend her older Cuban-born boss.
Carlos Alberto Montaner, an exiled anti-Castro Cuban columnist and writer who is often attacked by Cuba's state media, challenged Milanes to speak out during his Miami concert about human rights violations on the island.
But in a recent column, he also urged exiles to give the Cuban singer a friendly reception. "We want a Cuba where everyone fits in and where all are respected," Montaner wrote. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech)