The Miami Herald
Thu, Nov. 18, 2004

Defectors welcomed Cuban-style in Las Vegas


LAS VEGAS - The Florida Café is probably as close to Cuba as you're going to get on the Strip.

Sergio Perez, the gregarious Cuban-born owner, brews coffee that is thick and foamy. The paintings of cathedrals and streetscapes of Havana come directly from the island.

So it is no wonder that the group of Cuban performers who defected in Las Vegas this week have become frequent guests.

Perez and members of the city's sizable Cuban-American community have embraced the Havana Night Club show members who sought asylum here in the largest group defection since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.


They have attended the troupe's shows, hosted dinner parties and played soccer with them. The city's Spanish-language television stations have covered the troupe extensively.

The Cuban community is well established here. Many people who worked in island casinos and the Havana nightlife industry before Castro put a stop to it in 1959 emigrated directly to Las Vegas to find jobs.

To be sure, Las Vegas' Cuban community lacks the size and political clout of South Florida's.

The largest concentrations of Cuban Americans traditionally have been in Washington, D.C., and the greater Miami area. Other sizable populations reside in Tampa, Los Angeles and Hudson County, N.J.

The Las Vegas area is home to about 13,100 Cubans -- the eighth largest number in the country, according to 2003 U.S. Census figures.

But they are not as prominent here because they make up only 3 percent of the Hispanic population, which is 75 percent Mexican.

Local Cuban Americans have reached out to the performers since the troupe first performed here this summer.

Aleyda Hernández-Basulto, a Cuban-born real estate agent who moved to Las Vegas nearly three decades ago, last week hosted a dinner party for the group. They dined on roast pork and drank ''a lot of mojitos,'' Hernández-Basulto said.


As a show of support, Hernández-Basulto went to the local federal building Monday as the performers turned in their asylum papers.

Hernández-Basulto only half-jokingly says that if the show had been in Miami, the exile community there would have protested.

''These kids are a product of the Castro regime,'' said Hernández-Basulto, who has lived here for nearly three decades. ``And those who would support Castro take notice: People in Cuba are trying to break free.''

After the first show this summer, two Cuban-American women approached José Manuel, a carrot-topped 38-year-old who sings and dances for the Havana Night Club show. They have become friends. Since then, they have befriended him, coming to many of the shows.

''They have been marvelous. They've received me so well,'' Manuel said. ``I feel like they're my aunts.''


Jorge Viote, a county health department employee who left Cuba in 1995, was playing soccer at a park when friends introduced him to another player -- Puro Hernández, the show's musical director. Afterward, they went out for pizza.

''We talked about music, Cuba,'' Viote said. ``Getting to know someone else from Cuba, it's like food for the soul.''


Back at the Florida Café, Perez keeps a CD of the troupe's music at the bar.

Perez, who came from Havana about 13 years ago, beams because there are newly arrived Cubans in Las Vegas who are willing to share their culture.

''The show is like a history of Cuba, from the African songs to the cha-cha-cha,'' he said.

``The Cuban song -- it's a symbol of our culture.''

Staff writer Tim Henderson contributed to this report.