On Saturday night in Havana, music star Silvio Rodriguez was set to play the 62nd edition of the “barrio concerts” he’s held in Cuban neighborhoods and towns over the past few years. The show took place in the shadow of the Estado Latinoamericano, Cuba’s equivalent of Yankee Stadium, in the humble neighborhood of Cerro.
The crowd was about 20,000 strong, and the show was simulcast on Cuban national TV. Millions tuned in at home, but few watching the show knew it was about to take on historic meaning.
As people filled the park and musicians checked their instruments, five smiling men, each wearing ball caps from Havana’s lengendary baseball team, Industriales, were escorted to the front of the crowd. They waved to the audience, which quickly realized who they were — the "Cuban Five" — and erupted in ecstatic applause.
It turned out the concert was also the homecoming celebration for the five Cuban intelligence officers caught and tried in the United States. The last three of the men were sent home to Cuba from US federal prisons in exchange for a CIA operative and the humanitarian release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker.
While the return of the Cuban Five was barely discussed in American media, the story has been as big a deal in Cuba as the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States.
Since Wednesday’s announcement, the country's two newspapers, both published by the state, have been emblazoned with massive headlines about the return of the Cuban Five; stories about President Barack Obama and details about policy changes have been relegated to appearing below the fold — or off the front page entirely.
At Rodriguez's concert in Cerro, the Five were given a heroes' welcome befitting men whose faces adorn billboards across the island. Cuba has always maintained that the men were heroes in the fight against terrorism, sent to Miami in the 1990s to keep tabs on Cuban-American organizations and especially extremist groups responsible for terrorist acts, like blowing up a Cubana Airlines flight in 1976.
Near the close of the show, Rodriguez brought the men up on stage to sing along to his song “El Necio," or "The Fool." The audience chanted along as it had done all night, but this time the words carried special meaning.
Most of Rodriguez’s lyrics are complex and full of metaphors, and “El Necio” seems to be about a heroic figure who foolishly pursues his ideals over pragmatism. It was an emotional moment for the Five, who wiped away tears, and for the legions of Rodriguez’s fans, who, like their musical hero, seemed to be among those who still support the ideals of the Cuban Revolution, warts and all.
Though the new rules announced last week by President Obama — relaxing limits on family visits and remittances from the US — are welcome news to Cubans, much uncertainty remains on the island. Few Cubans, if any, are unhappy with the improvement in relations, and there’s a feeling of hope in the air that didn’t exist before last Wednesday.