Los Angeles Times
November 16, 2004

Cuban Artists Stage Mass Defection

Saying an uncertain future awaits them if they return home, 43 members of a musical revue file asylum petitions in Las Vegas.

By Agustin Gurza
Times Staff Writer

After weeks of speculation about a group defection, 43 members of a Cuban musical revue filed petitions for political asylum Monday in Las Vegas, where they have been performing since August.

Troupe leaders said that seven other members of "Havana Night Club The Show," who had traveled to Germany, also were planning to seek asylum in the U.S., bringing the total to 50 dancers, singers, musicians and staff.

Knowledgeable observers said they believed that would be the largest such defection of Cuban artists to date.

Nicole Durr, the group's German-born founder and director, said the artists were forced to take the step, leaving most of their relatives back home, because they faced an uncertain future if they returned to Cuba, where the government controls most artistic endeavors.

"How can you tell a 19-year-old dancer who's brilliant not to dance?" Durr said Monday. "They were told, 'When you come back, your life as an artist will change.' "

The visit of the troupe, the first major Cuban revue to play Las Vegas since Fidel Castro came to power, has been controversial from the start.

Although relatively unknown, the group represented the first Cuban performers in more than a year to obtain entry visas to the United States, which has cracked down on such cultural exchanges because of security concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The State Department at first turned down the group's petition to perform in the U.S., but that decision was reversed after the intervention of high-powered lobbyists and a letter from actor Kevin Costner.

When Cuban authorities balked at the last-minute green light from Washington, Durr encouraged the performers to apply as individuals to leave Cuba, publicly promoting the move as an act of defiance by Cubans seeking artistic freedom.

Despite the confrontation with the government in Havana, the artists were allowed to leave, and their show opened at the Stardust Resort & Casino on Aug. 21, three weeks after its originally scheduled premiere.

With six of seven members traveling to the U.S. from Germany on Monday, the company will be almost complete for a new, 12-week run that began Monday at the Stardust's Wayne Newton Theatre.

Using a series of colorful sets, the show offers a sweeping overview of the history of Cuban music, from its rhythmic origins to modern fusions with rap. Since the revue's world premiere in 2000, the company has performed in 17 countries before more than 2 million spectators.

But its success in entering the U.S. this year immediately raised questions among advocates for Cuban artists of much higher stature such as pianist Chucho Valdes and Buena Vista Social Club singer Ibrahim Ferrer who now are denied visas despite several visits to the U.S.

San Francisco lawyer Bill Martinez, a pioneer in negotiating Cuban cultural exchanges, said Monday that the mass defection proved that the troupe's affair was politically motivated and designed to embarrass the Castro regime and to spark dissension within the Cuban cultural community.

"It was obviously a game from the beginning," Martinez said. "It's a sad reflection of [U.S.] foreign policy when artists are manipulated to create instability, forcing them to renounce their own government to get a visa. Basically, it's cultural imperialism."

New York lawyer Pamela Falk, who helped the group obtain U.S. visas, denied Martinez's allegation, saying the artists made their decisions individually, "with a great deal of sorrow and conflict."

Two performers chose to return to Cuba, she said, and one remained undecided as of Monday.

"They felt they were between a rock and a hard place," Falk said by telephone from Las Vegas. "The troupe applied to come to the United States with the full intention of returning, but as the process unfolded, the situation got tenser and tenser and they got the boot on the way out."

Falk said the artists faced possible prison terms if they returned home because the Cuban government had threatened to treat them as dissidents.

Citing fear of reprisals against their relatives and friends in Cuba, some artists were quoted anonymously in a news release issued Monday after the group submitted asylum petitions at the Lloyd D. George Federal Building in Las Vegas. Said one, who was described in the release as "exuberant and teary": "We are artists, but we were treated like politicians."

Ariel Machado, the group's production manager, suggested that more than politics was involved in the troupe members' defections.

"It's a tough decision," Machado said Monday, speaking in Spanish during a break from the group's rehearsal. "But we see the future for us as a fantastic entertainment act, and that can only be accomplished here, where we are, in Las Vegas."

Associated Press contributed to this report.