Last summer when Colombian rock star Juanes announced his plans to hold a peace concert in Cuba, he put a Grammy-winning, multimillion-dollar career on the line.
Hit hard by an avalanche of criticism from Cuban exiles, he faced a public relations nightmare — calls for a boycott of his music and anonymous death threats sent to his Twitter account.
So, whom did the Miami-based musician turn to? Besides fellow artists and some local politicians, he met with a largely unknown group of young Cuban-Americans called Roots of Hope. Young professionals of Cuban extraction, the group's mission is to foster greater understanding through contact with the communist nation.
For the next few weeks the members of Roots of Hope, all still in their 20s, would become Juanes' eloquent mouthpiece in the local media.
"They were his life jacket," says Juanes' manager, Fernan Martinez. "When no one was there for him, Roots was there."
Two weeks ago, Juanes and a group of Cuban and international singers rocked Havana's Plaza of the Revolution before 1 million fans. The concert earned Juanes comparisons to Bono, Ireland's famous rock crusader.
It has also thrust Roots of Hope into the forefront of political debate in South Florida's large Cuban exile community, long the domain of an old guard of unyielding, anti-Castro hard-liners.
"These kids have been incredibly effective in what they have done and their message is very powerful," said Carlos Saladrigas, a wealthy Cuban exile businessman and co-chair of the Cuba Study Group. "They gambled on Juanes and they won big."
• • •
Travel to Cuba has always been a touchy subject for young Cuban-Americans. For years many have stifled their curiosity out of respect for the pain of their elders.
In 2002, Felice Gorordo, 26, was studying government affairs at Georgetown University, taking a class in Cuban affairs, when he decided he needed to buck tradition and find out about his roots.
His mother, a school administrator, deeply opposed his first trip and wouldn't even see him off to the airport. "I couldn't eat, I was just so worried," said his mother Martha Serra. "I couldn't understand why he would want to go."
In Cuba he met a couple of young students who were hopeful about building a new civil society. "I felt if they are putting everything on the line then we have to do something."
When he got back to Georgetown he began calling other Cuban-American students. Roots of Hope was born.
"We got the idea of a forum to create a dialogue about our role in our parents' cause," he said.
The group's first conference at Harvard in 2003 quickly established their political diversity and identified a number of issues they could not agree on, including travel to Cuba. Many exiles oppose travel to Cuba, arguing it legitimizes the government and puts money in communist hands.
The conference reached a consensus that travel to the island was a personal choice. By agreeing to disagree the group took a big step away from the traditional intolerance of exile hard-liners. The group has since held five more conferences, including at Georgetown, Princeton and the University of Miami.
The group now numbers 2,800 members. Mostly young professionals, with an average age of 21, they are bipartisan and include second-generation Cuban-Americans born in Miami, as well as members recently arrived from Cuba. Gorordo served in the Bush administration after leaving college, and now works for a South Florida energy firm.
• • •
Miguel Arguelles, 24, came to Miami in 1995. Seven years later he was his high school valedictorian. He became the first student from his school to win a place at Harvard.
"One of the biggest lessons Harvard taught me was tolerance and listening to other people's opinions," he said.
Yet when he got back to Miami three years ago, he was shocked. "I never felt as afraid to speak up as when I came back," he said.
"I am a young professional. I want to succeed here. So, to go against the community could be a very bad move," said Arguelles, who heads the human resources department at Inktel, a large direct marketing firm.
Roots of Hope was initially divided about whether to support Juanes' efforts — they worried about being drawn into a political fight — but they saw an opportunity to reach out to Cuban youth and to change minds in Miami, where polling showed that nearly half of those surveyed opposed the concert.
In an opinion piece for the Miami Herald, Arguelles wrote: "Music has a magical way of enlivening the soul, and more than any of us can imagine, the Cuban people need to be inspired, entertained and uplifted by the cultural and artistic expression of influential performers like Juanes."
The group's boldness has impressed some exile leaders who support a more open U.S. policy toward Cuba.
"The young ones over there and here have a lot in common. They have more in common than people in my generation have with our counterparts in Cuba," said Saladrigas, 61. "Without that baggage they are more able to reach out to each other and connect."
"They actually have a better understanding of the realities of Cuba at the present time than we old 'historical' guys,' " said Francisco José Hernández, 73, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, once the hard-line voice of Miami Cubans but which has eased its tone.
Other older exiles say they share the group's goals of bringing greater freedoms to Cuba, but consider the group's methods misguided.
"I think that Raices members reflect the desire of Cuban-American youth to get involved," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. "It is quite understandable that young people would see music as a bridge between people," she added, though she derided the idea that the concert would bring about change in Cuba.
• • •
But the concert may well have changed Miami.
A staggering 73 percent of Cuban-Americans tuned in to the Sept. 20 concert. Awed by the massive crowd, they watched Juanes take the stage with an evocative song titled Nothing in Particular, featuring the chorus "Give me an island in the middle of the sea, name it liberty."
At the close, Juanes returned to the stage, concluding with the words: "Viva Cuba Libre, Viva Cuba Libre." (Long live a free Cuba.)
One hard-bitten Cuban-American broadcaster broke down on air. An opinion poll afterwards found support for the concert leaped from 27 percent to 53 percent. The biggest shift came from older exiles, who went from only 17 percent in favor before the concert to 48 percent afterward.
Among the converts was businessman Sergio Pino, president of Century Homebuilders of South Florida.
"Juanes opened the door to change; it is time to rethink our strategy," he wrote in the Miami Herald. "With three Cuban-American members of Congress, and one in the Senate, and many well-meaning Cuban-American leaders … of political organizations in exile, it is time for one of them to come forward and unite us behind a new and more effective approach that focuses on the Cuban people first."
Juanes knows the credit is not his alone.
Working with Roots of Hope had been "inspiring," Juanes wrote the St. Petersburg Times in an e-mail. The group's support was "a clear sign of new trends of thought with regards to Cuban exile."