Opening Borders: First Came the Pope, Next Came Juanes

Not since pope's visit has the country opened its borders to such celebration.

HAVANA, Cuba, Sept. 20, 2009 — -- Withering 100-degree tropical heat and sweltering 80 percent humidity weren't enough to keep the crowds away from Revolution Square this weekend in Havana.

By official count, 1.2 million Cubans -- that is one-tenth of the entire country -- turned out to see an all-star concert from the top in Latin pop, rock and salsa music.

This would be a big deal in a lot of places, but in Cuba, where generations of Cold War isolation have kept most superstars away, there has never been a music event on this scale before. In fact, the last time Cuba saw anything this big was 1998 when Pope John Paul II came to visit.

On the same square and in the same place where the pope came to pray, 14 of the biggest acts in Latin music came to play. And the crowd loved it. Smiling, gyrating, waving their hands and dancing. A very welcome respite from a life that for many here has few luxuries.

"It's time for a change," yelled Puerto Rican singer/songwriter Olga Tañón as the concert began. And the crowd cheered.

The organizer of the concert is Juanes, a Colombian-born singer/writer who lives in Miami. He is not a familiar name in the United States among non-Hispanics -- yet -- but he's the biggest star in Latin music today: winner of 17 Latin Grammys, more than anyone has ever won. A year ago when his native Colombia was facing threats of war from neighboring Venezuela he arranged a concert called "Peace Without Borders" on a bridge connecting the two countries.

This weekend's concert -- held on United Nations International Day of Peace -- is the second of the "Peace Without Borders" concerts. Juanes and several other performers paid the entire cost out of their own pockets. They very pointedly did not want involvement from government, and they insisted this concert be apolitical.

Of course when the setting is Cuba, it is virtually impossible to avoid politics. Juanes faced criticism and even death threats from the dwindling and aging population of hard-line Cuban-Americans in Miami, who accused him of supporting the Castro government. Under pressure, Latin rock stars Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias bowed out of the concert.

Many Cuban-Americans Wary of Musicians' Concert

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Juanes walked with me through the streets of the once-wealthy Havana suburb of Miramar.

He said he and the other artists came to Cuba to help people find common ground.

"We were saying, 'Wait, let's go to Cuba, let's go there and just try to open a little window or a little door with music,'" he said.

Back in Miami, at the virulently anti-Castro radio station Radio Mambi, Ninoska Perez-Castillon hosts a daily afternoon Spanish-language radio show. She told us she believes Juanes is letting himself be used.

"Don't come to me pretending that you're doing this for peace for the Cuban people, because it's not only that they have no peace, they have no freedom," she said. "And I think to go to Cuba and ignore this is to serve the interest of Cuba's dictatorship."

Juanes understands that some people feel that way, but their pressure did not stop him from coming to Cuba.

"There is a lot of pain between the exiles [a term some Cuba-Americans use to describe themselves] and Cuba. I respect that pain," he said. "But there's nothing to be done about it. This is about the future."

As we ambled through the streets, people unaccustomed to seeing music superstars in their midst were slack-jawed as they realized it was Juanes. Timidly, politely they interrupted our conversation asking for photos with the star and autographs, and offering him kisses. Young and old were smiling. And so were more than a million people in Revolution Square.