Just over four years ago, Colombian pop star, Juanes (Juan Esteban Aristazabal) led an international group of Latin music stars and Cuban performers (sanctioned and approved by the Cuban state) who performed for just under seven hours for a million, sun-baked Cuban fans at the heart of Havana’s infamous Revolutionary Plaza. The mega concert, which was part of Juanes’ Peace Without Borders conscience-building concert series certainly provided plenty of food for thought.
With the benefit of sufficient time to assess and dissect what the concert symbolized and the effects it had on the Cuban people, comes an inspiring and insightful documentary titled 13 Million Voices directed by Janelle Gueits and produced by her brother, Chris Gueits.
The film is a gritty, behind the scenes look at what took place leading up to the performance — when all the niceties from the participants and government dignitaries had been dispensed at the press conference and most cameras were off. The narrative traces the experiences of several members of an organization called Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a group formed in 2003 by young Cuban American students (primarily from universities across the United States).
The mission of Raices was then, and continues to be now, to raise awareness about the lack of freedoms, the frustrations and the overall plight of young Cubans on the island. Janelle Gueits and several members of Raices met with Juanes prior to the concert in 2009, and after some careful thought decided to support the performer on his crusade to play his music for the hermetically isolated Cuban people.
“The idea of having a musician play in Cuba on a grand scale is something we [the leadership of Raices] had spoken about several years before the Juanes opportunity presented itself,” the film’s director explained. “We thought, ‘What better way to transmit the message of freedom than through music?’ When we found out about what Juanes was trying to do and spoke to him directly (an exchange that is documented in the film) we decided to support his effort.”
The idea of the concert produced mixed reaction among Cubans in Miami (yours truly included). On these very pages I wrote a column questioning the purpose of the concert. I was (and continue to be) leery of what I consider to be one of the most disingenuous, lying, self-serving regimes of our times. What I didn’t count on was on the maturity, sophistication and downright courage of the members of Raices who traveled with Juanes to Cuba and witnessed and documented the concert backstage.
These young activists/filmmakers stood strong in the face of overt attempts by the Cuban government to intimidate them and suppress their filming of the event. 13 Million Voices captures the tense exchanges that went on at the lobby of the hotel between government officials and Juanes just hours before the show. The film also reveals how Juanes steadfastly and honorably defended the young Cuban Americans’ right to be there.
The documentary, which will make its way to television in early 2014, also exposes the testimony of young people in Cuba commenting on the horrid state of oppression on the island. “For years we’ve all heard the traditional adjectives that rightfully describe the Cuban regime — words like tyrannical, dictatorial etc.,” said Janelle Gueits. “Unfortunately, with time, the impact of these words fades. I always wanted to put names and faces to those deeds. I wanted to see for myself what kind of deprivation of rights really takes place in Cuba. This whole journey for me has been about humanizing the story.”
This week, Tony Jimenez, a Raices founder who was one of the Cuban Americans on the fateful trip with Juanes, shared a viewpoint, which the film reinforced for me: “For seven hours the Cuban people sang and laughed free of hate, violent rhetoric or repression. For a moment, they tasted freedom and to me that was well worth it.”