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Latino rocker sees Havana gig helping U.S.-Cuba thaw

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI (Reuters) - Colombian rock star Juanes says a public concert he plans in Cuba next month could help further thaw U.S.-Cuban ties despite outcry from some Cuban exiles who accuse him of pandering to the island's communist rulers.

Juanes, who lives in the United States, told the Miami Herald in an interview published on Wednesday he saw his scheduled September 20 concert in Havana's Revolution Square as a chance to promote reconciliation between Cuba and the United States, which have been ideological foes for nearly 50 years.

"I am not a communist ... I'm not going to Cuba to play for the Cuban regime ... Our only message is one of peace, of humanitarianism, of tolerance, a message of interacting with the people," he told the paper at his Key Biscayne home.

Juanes, 37, whose full name is Juan Esteban Aristizabal Vasquez, is a major star in the Spanish-speaking music world and has won a string of Latin Grammy Awards.

A 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba restricts travel to the Communist-ruled island by Americans, although special licenses can be granted.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Juanes met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May to propose his concert and they had discussed the general support of President Barack Obama's administration for "people to people" contacts with Cuba.

But he said Clinton refrained from taking a specific position and it would be up to the Treasury Department, which enforces the U.S. embargo, to issue the necessary licenses for those involved in the concert to make the trip.

A Treasury spokesperson said Juanes required a license because he resided in the United States, which made him subject to U.S. jurisdiction even though he was Colombian. The spokesperson did not say whether the license had been granted.

Among the anti-communist Cuban exile community in the United States, critics have pilloried Juanes as "naive", saying his concert will be a boost for Cuba's communist leadership while ignoring the plight of detained Cuban dissidents.

A number of well-known Latino singers Juanes had invited declined to take part because of the political sensitivity.

But Juanes said the planned "Peace without Borders" event in Havana, which will follow a similar reconciliation recital he gave on the Colombian-Venezuelan border last year, could help revive U.S.-Cuban cultural exchanges that had remained largely frozen under former U.S. President George W. Bush.

"RIGHT MOMENT"

Obama, while calling on Cuban leaders to improve human rights and political freedoms, has said he wants to seek more normal ties with Havana and in April lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to the island, slightly easing the long-running U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

"This is the right moment to start something," Juanes told the Miami Herald. "In the last administration, for sure we weren't talking about this. But with this administration, with Obama as president, I believe it's different."

Miami media have reported Juanes has received death threats over the concert and a small group of right-wing Cuban exiles smashed and burned CDs of his music in Miami last week.

Juanes said he met with Clinton and members of the U.S. administration and Congress in May to see if they would back his initiative and give permission to U.S. musicians and technicians to attend the show.

The Miami Herald said Juanes would hold the September 20 concert in the same Revolution Square location where Pope John Paul II gave a mass in 1998 during his historic visit to Cuba.

Fellow pop singers Miguel Bose of Spain and Olga Tanon from Puerto Rico would join the Colombian rocker, it added.

Cuban American commentator Ninoska Perez, a fierce critic of Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother, former leader Fidel Castro, said she had told Juanes she feared the Cuban government would use his concert for political manipulation.

"He said he wanted to sing for the people. I replied that what Cubans needed was freedom, not concerts," she wrote in the Spanish language El Nuevo Herald at the weekend.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and David Lawder in Washington; Editing by David Storey)

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