South Florida Sun-Sentinel
November 16, 2004

Cuban troupe defects in Vegas

By Vanessa Bauza

HAVANA · First they beat bureaucratic hurdles to become one of the largest Cuban productions to perform in the United States in half a century.

On Monday, 44 performers of the Havana Night Club ensemble again made history when they announced one of the largest mass defections from Cuba.

Fearing their group would be disbanded if they returned to Cuba, the musicians, dancers and singers submitted paperwork for political asylum at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas.

"They were forced into this," Nicole Durr, the creator of the Havana Night Club show, said. "We will continue our work."

Three cast members will return to Cuba. Seven others, who are in Germany, were granted U.S. asylum Monday, said Pamela Falk, a City University of New York professor who is advising the group on immigration issues.

Group members gradually entered the United States months ago. Their show opens tonight at the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas for a 12-week engagement.

Falk described the performers as "teary and exuberant" on Monday.

"They felt they were given no choice on the way out the door. Once they got here they felt very nervous about what the future held," Falk said in a telephone conversation from Las Vegas. "They have a firm resolve, each one of them have made their own decision and spoken with their families."

Founded in 1998, the Havana Night Club show has performed for audiences in 16 countries across Europe and Asia.

But when they were invited to Las Vegas for their first U.S. appearance, their visa applications sank into a bureaucratic quagmire fueled by 45 years of animosity.

The National Union of Cuban Artists and Writers, which acts as a liaison between artists and the Cuban government, told them not to pursue the visa applications, saying it was a waste of time because the U.S. government would reject them.

In an act of defiance rare among Cuban performers, the group defied the request.

The U.S. government initially rejected the group's visa request. But after Durr and others enlisted the support of exile leaders in Miami, Washington insiders and lawyers, the U.S. government reversed its decision and Havana Night Club became one of the only Cuban musical groups in recent years to secure U.S. visas on grounds that they were independent from the Cuban government.

After tense weeks of waiting, during which Durr said $150,000 worth of the group's sound equipment was confiscated, the Cuban government allowed them to travel despite the controversy.

The dancers and musicians, many of whom began to work with Havana Night Club in their late teens, were thrilled. But many also felt caught up the political hostility that characterizes U.S.-Cuba relations.

"It's very draining," the group's manager, Ariel Machado, 33, said in Havana before his arrival in Las Vegas. "I always dreamed of doing something important with my life. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but I never imagined it like this, involved in a war I was born into."

Those who work regularly with Cuban artists, performers and athletes were surprised that nearly the entire ensemble of Havana Night Club decided to defect.

"It's unprecedented; I think it's a sign of the times," said Rachel Faro, a New York-based producer who specializes in Cuban music. "I think a lot of Cuban artists really want to lead normal lives as artists, they don't want to be isolated. They want a level playing field."

Under new anti-terrorism measures, Cuban performers' visa applications are scrutinized rigorously. The U.S. government recently has rejected visa applications for acclaimed Cuban musicians such as Latin Grammy nominees Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los Van Van and former Buena Vista Social Club members Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa. Faro feared the Havana Night Club defections could create a new hurdle to cultural exchange.

"I really hope this one incident doesn't make the Cuban government lose faith in letting their artists get out and tour the world," Faro said. "It's sad enough that right now Americans are being denied the opportunity to see Cuban artists."

In Havana, a spokesman for the National Union of Cuban Artists and Writers could not be reached for comment.

A U.S. diplomat in Havana blamed "stifling" conditions in Cuba for the defections.

"These artists had only attempted to work independently of the Cuban state, but its government treated them as pariahs," said the official, who declined to be named.

While many performers and athletes are lured to the United States by the potential economic windfall, success is far from guaranteed. Those who have helped defectors in the past say many factors play into the decision to sever their ties with the island.

"With the baseball players you have a common thread. They want to test themselves against the best competition in the world, but they also have their own private reasons, it may be personal, political or financial reasons," said Gus Dominguez, a sports agent who has helped 30 ballplayers defect since 1990. "It takes me by surprise that such as large group would do this together. It's not the norm."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Vanessa Bauza can be reached at

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