The Miami Herald
Sat, Nov. 20, 2004

Careful planning brought defectors to U.S.

Behind-the-scenes lobbying and careful record keeping persuaded the Bush administration to reverse course and grant visas to the Cuban performers who ultimately defected this week.

BY ELAINE DE VALLE, DAVID OVALLE AND MARTIN MERZER

The tale spans two continents and touches Fidel Castro and Siegfried & Roy, a resourceful German-born producer and a politically adept Cuban-born exile leader, Colin Powell and Kevin Costner and 53 Cuban singers, dancers and musicians.

It ends, for now, in U.S. immigration computers and on the stage -- eight shows a week, mambo to reggathon -- of the Wayne Newton Theatre at the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

And it ends, as well, with 50 members of the troupe called Havana Night Club uniting in one of the largest Cuban mass defections since Castro came to power 45 years ago, the beneficiaries of precision lobbying by supporters in Miami's Cuban community, the group's own fastidious record keeping, and an unusual reversal of the Bush administration's restrictive policy on Cuban entertainers.

One key moment: when Cuban exile leader Joe Garcia learned from the group's New York lawyer that many members wanted to defect.

Another: when the artists staged a risky public demonstration in Havana, documented by CNN.

And another: when the group's lawyer convinced the State Department that the cha-cha-cha was indeed inherently Cuban and dumped 800 pages of financial records on U.S. bureaucrats.

INDEPENDENT

''This is the first group or only group that sought to establish that they were independent of the Cuban regime, and they did it with documentary evidence,'' a U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Herald. ``It was a compelling case.''

''We had to put our credibility on the line . . . ,'' said Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Powell on behalf of the group in early July and spearheaded the effort.

``These were people who were stuck, one more in the millions of victims of this regime. They asked for help.''

One of those people is Pedro Dikan, 31, a Havana Night Club singer: ``When I left, me personally, I knew I wasn't coming back. I'm crazy about starting a new life.''

Several facets of the affair remain unclear, including why the Cuban government ultimately let them leave and how they orchestrated their unusual degree of common purpose, but this is what is known about the genesis and evolution of this week's defection of Havana Night Club:

17 COUNTRIES

Created six years ago by German director Nicole Durr, the group performed in 17 countries, sketching, in song and dance, Cuban nightlife from the early days of African influences through the big-band era of the 1940s and 1950s, and to the Cuban street rappers of today.

Then, last fall, came the chance they yearned for -- an invitation from Siegfried & Roy to perform at the Stardust. In Las Vegas. In the United States.

''Any singer would want to land here,'' Dikan said. ``I'm Cuban. This has been a dream that I never thought I'd realize.''

U.S. BARRIERS

But the near-freeze in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations soon created two barriers:

Since November 2003, U.S. policy has strongly discouraged -- essentially banned -- visits by Cuban artists. The stated reason: Most of the money earned by Cuban artists who work overseas ends up in Castro's treasury.

''Our decision to prohibit performers from traveling here was based on the notion that, in effect, they are Cuban government employees and were providing resources to the regime,'' the State Department official said.

The Castro government, apparently sensing the group's discontent and the possible defections, refused to process departure papers. Cuban officials said Havana Night Club's break with the nation's writers and artists union -- taken to demonstrate its independence -- rendered it suspicious.

DENIED VISAS

In large measure, the controversy began in January and February, when members of the group -- already well known in international entertainment circles as a class act and popular draw -- were denied U.S. visas.

''They were treated like all other performing artists were,'' the State Department official said. ``The assumption was made that they were government employees and any proceeds they made here would accrue to the Cuban government.''

Cuban performers, just like Cuban architects in France or Cuban coaches in South America, normally are not paid directly by their overseas employers.

Instead, the money goes to the Cuban government and the workers receive a percentage of their earnings.

As word of the visa rejection spread, several high-profile Cuban exiles in Miami and elsewhere began applying pressure. The effort intensified after Garcia learned in late June from Pamela Falk, the group's attorney, that many members wanted to defect.

''We asked the State Department to reconsider, because we knew,'' Garcia said.

Garcia wrote the letter to Powell on June 25, and he and colleagues lobbied U.S. senators and diplomatic workers who were adhering to the hard-line ban.

ENVOY OF CASTRO?

The effort drew criticism from some who believed that Havana Night Club was just another regime-approved organization that would serve as an ambassador for Castro.

''All the right-wing folks attacked us because we were helping these supposed Communists come to America,'' Garcia said. ``Even on radio they made attacks personally on me and on Dennis Hays.''

Hays, a former U.S. ambassador to Suriname, ran the Cuban American National Foundation office in Washington before he joined a lobbying firm run by Al Cárdenas, former chairman of the state Republican Party. Emilio Gonzalez, formerly with the National Security Council, also works for Cárdenas and participated in the effort.

CONNECTIONS

All are well plugged into the Bush administration and all worked their contacts on behalf of Havana Night Club.

''We knew these people couldn't defend themselves,'' Garcia said. ``We've always helped, and that means doing the right thing as opposed to the popular thing.''

The group still had to overcome a policy hurdle -- proving that it was independent.

Enter Falk, an international trade attorney and professor at the City University of New York who represents the troupe.

At one point, she found herself having to convince bureaucrats that the cha-cha-cha is Cuban -- proof that the group offered something ``culturally unique.''

She also hauled out 800 pages of financial records -- ''phone calls, receipts, everything,'' she said -- to prove Havana Night Club was independent.

DOCUMENTATION

It worked.

''They established the wage scales that the individuals were paid and where the funds came from, and they did not come from the Cuban regime,'' the State Department official said.

By the end of July, 46 cast members finally received U.S. visas.

(Seven others, who again were rejected because they had relatives in the United States, which clouded their motives and complicated their status, ended up in Germany and applied for parole from there into the United States. Six arrived Tuesday; the other's paperwork is still pending.)

Did the State Department know some or most of the group members were going to defect? ''They probably knew at some level,'' Garcia said.

The Cuban government apparently did, too.

The group's independence proved to be a roadblock back in Havana, where the government refused to issue the ''white cards'' required to leave the country.

PROTEST ON TV

Two days after the U.S. visas were issued, Durr was ordered out of Cuba.

In response, the troupe orchestrated a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, captured on tape by CNN.

''The Cubans were very embarrassed by this,'' Falk said. ``A protest in Cuba is just not done.''

Meanwhile, Costner -- the American actor who forged a relationship with Castro over a late-night dinner and movie in 2001 -- lobbied Cuban officials, Cárdenas said.

'Mounting public opinion in the entertainment industry was telling Castro, `What are you doing?' '' Cárdenas said. ``He finally, in the end, relented.''

NOT RETURNING

And now, 50 of the 53 are not going back.

Singer José Manuel, 38, left his family behind in Cuba.

''It's like the Cuban saying, la necesidad lo hace todo,'' necessity makes everything happen, he said. ``I have my mom in Cuba, but this is my second family.

'Havana Nights' world in Cuba is over.''

Herald writer Timothy Pratt contributed to this report.