My trip to Cuba began on my birthday – after snarfing down a Duncan Hines birthday cake made by my four kids (and decorated with redhots), i headed to Miami first, then onto Havana.
It was hot when I arrived at Jose Marti airport – temperatures for the concert were well into the 90's. Hopeful concert-goers were lined up along the roads hoping to hitch a ride or catch a Wah-wah (the local bus) to La Plaza de la Revolution. It's the same spot where Pope John Paul II said mass back in 1998. But this was a concert and the "water station" in the tent for the performers served mojitos, with Havana Club – a rum you cannot buy in the United States, because of the embargo.
Our photographer Orlando arrived with a tent, thankfully, because by midday young women were fainting from heat exhaustion and the crowd estimate had swelled to 600 thousand people. At two o'clock sharp the concert began with Puerto Rican singer Olga Tañon taking the stage, and despite the heat the crowd danced wildly to her music. Cucu Diamantes (crazy diamonds), who is tall and willowy and never broke a sweat, told me she was happy – and that it was very emotional for her. A Cuban-American who left Cuba in in the mid eighties, she hadn't been back to Cuba for 8 years, and even then it was to visit her family.
We wrangled our way onto the stage – the security was tight but it was doable – and had a quick chat with Miguel Bose, who said he was energized by seeing so many Cubans waving flags. He – as all the performers consistently did – underscored the concerts focus: peace. And brushed off any questions of controversy by saying the people, the growing crowd, just wanted to be entertained. We got to run "backstage" (really the upstairs of the national library) to interview Juanes – making our way through the throng of mostly young people who were waiting outside to catch a glimpse of Juanes as he did the mad dash (about 100 yards) to the stage.
U.S. and Cuban diplomatic officials met in Washington Monday, fueling more talk of thawing relations.
It was the second meeting between a top State department official and Cuba's chief diplomat here in Washington since President Obama took office.
There was no hard agenda, just an effort to overcome decades of hard feelings.
President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro are speaking the language of diplomacy on a whole host of issues.
First came the White House's change on Cuban American travel. Then came Castro's surprising offer to talk about human rights in Cuba.
Now the president has said what he has in mind.
Cuba was not represented at the summit, but Obama noted that the leaders of other countries highlighted Cuba's program that sends "thousands of doctors" throughout the hemisphere. A number of countries depend heavily on Cuba's medical assistance program.
"It's a reminder ... that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction - if our only interaction is military - then we may not be developing the connections that can over time increase our influence and have a beneficial effect," he said.
Obama called Cuban President Raul Castro's recent indication of a willingness to discuss human rights issues "a sign of progress." But he said the Cuban government could send a much clearer, more positive signal by releasing political prisoners or reducing fees charged on remittances that Americans send to relatives in the country.
Change in Cuba will not come quickly, but it is good for other countries to see that "we are not dug in into policies that were formulated before I was born," Obama said.
What do you think? Should the U.S. lift the trade embargo against Cuba?
By Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)
Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Chris Smith is a Republican congressman from New Jersey’s Fourth District. He is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Ranking Republican of the Committee's Africa and Global Health Subcommittee.
On a recent April morning, I joined a group of former Cuban political prisoners and family members and human rights activists at a rally to voice concerns about human rights violations in Cuba, and to caution the Obama administration not to extend benefits to Cuba without the prior release of all political prisoners.
Days earlier, seven Democratic members of the House returned from Cuba having met with Raul and Fidel Castro. They gushed with praise for the Castros and their regime. But I, and many others, were profoundly disappointed that once again members of Congress traveled to this totalitarian country and failed to visit prisoners of conscience, all of whom are systematically abused, tortured, starved and degraded.