The Miami Herald
Tue, Nov. 16, 2004

Cuban performers defect, prepare for Las Vegas premiere


LAS VEGAS - The calls have come in from across the world. Friends from Thailand, France, even an old soccer buddy who lives in Miami and saw him on TV.

The media interviews and the electricity of the day had sapped his body but Puro Hernandez sat in a backroom cafeteria of the Stardust Casino and Resort late Monday night, his eyes gleaming, his smile broad.

''I never imagined I would live outside my country,'' he said in Spanish. ``But I want to have a future.''

And so Hernandez and more than 40 performers from the Havana Night Club show stepped into their new lives on Monday, officially defecting from Cuba, presenting their asylum papers to immigration officials here.

Hours later, the troupe warmed up for Tuesday's opening show with a packed -- and emotional -- charity performance.

''It felt so good,'' said dancer-singer Vivian Herrera of her first post-defection show. ``We've been waiting a long time for this.''

Another six members who requested asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin are scheduled to fly into Las Vegas Tuesday afternoon. One stayed behind because of paperwork delays, The New York Times reported.

It was the largest mass defection from Cuba to the United States since Fidel Castro took power. And members of the troupe are the first Cuban performers to be granted visas since the U.S. clamped down on letting in artists from the island a year ago.

The reality still hadn't sunk in for Hernandez, the troupe's musical director, and Herrera, who chatted with reporters after the show.

Both mentioned their independent streaks, and fretted about their families in Cuba.

Hernandez' father died four years ago. His mother still lives in Cienfuegos. Hernandez will miss his 15-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew, whom he used to take to parks and museums every few weeks.

''They're the kids I don't have,'' said Hernandez, 32, whose girlfriend is a dancer in the troupe. ``They are my adoration.''

The cast of the Havana Night Club show -- which presents a history of Cuban music from jungle rhythms to 1940s showgirls to contemporary street rap -- toured 16 countries over five years, performing to sold-out audiences in Europe and Asia.

Still, the Cuban troupe remained relatively unknown until the group got its first gig this summer in Las Vegas -- at the Stardust, home to legendary Vegas act Siegfried and Roy.

The troupe was under pressure from the Cuban government not to come.

The United States rejected its first visa request. But the performers persisted and, after lobbying by members of the Cuban American National Foundation and Florida Republican leader Al Cardenas, they got their visas.

When it was first invited to perform in Las Vegas, the Havana Night Club troupe got caught in a wave of rising tension between Washington and Havana.

Before November, 2003, artists from Cuba easily obtained visas to perform in the U.S., said a State Department source, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

''But the conclusion we came to after having done this for a number of years is that, in most cases, these individuals ended up acting as Cuban government employees and the vast majority of the proceeds of their performances went to the government,'' he said.

Cuban artists are generally not paid directly. Paychecks go to the Cuban ministry of culture or artists' union, which gives the artists only a portion of the money. Based on that, the U.S. denied visas to Havana Night Club performers in February, just as it had denied visas to other Cuban performers.

''We were just trying to put on a show and we got dragged into a political battle,'' Baroncelli said.

So the group set out to prove it was different. It provided documentation -- wage scales and pay stubs from previous shows -- that it was not a state-sanctioned organization.

''This is the first and only group of artists who have been able to establish that they are authentically independent of the Cuban government,'' the State Department official said.

Havana Night Club performances began July 31 at the casino but with less than half its cast as the Cuban government blocked performers from leaving the island, said Nicole Durr, creator and director of the theatrical production.

Individually or in small groups, all were eventually allowed to leave Cuba, and the show was hired for another run through Jan. 11.

Nobody at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. returned a call from the Herald Monday. But Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto told the Associated Press in July that the government's concern was about the troupe having ''miraculously received visas'' that were originally denied once it distanced itself from the Cuban artists' union.