Members of Cuban Troupe Say They Will Seek Asylum
By NICK MADIGAN
LAS VEGAS, Nov. 14 - In what appears to be the largest mass defection of Cuban performers to date, 44 dancers, singers and musicians, here to stage a revue, plan to seek political asylum in the United States, troupe members said on Sunday.
Most of the artists intend to deliver their applications for asylum personally on Monday morning at the Federal Building here, the performers said in interviews in an auditorium at the Stardust Resort and Casino, where their "Havana Night Club" revue is booked for a three-month run.
Seven other members of the ensemble have already sought asylum from United States officials in Berlin; those performers were due to travel to Las Vegas in time for a benefit show on Monday evening. The regular show was scheduled to open on Tuesday.
"The only thing we regret is that our families in Cuba may suffer," Puro Hernández, 31, the troupe's musical director, said in Spanish. "But the Cuban government left us no choice - they put us between the sword and a wall."
Members said they had defied Cuban orders in early summer not to seek United States entry visas. But once the visas were granted, Cuban officials allowed the troupe to leave Cuba. They did so, the cast members said, because the issue had received widespread attention in the United States and because the Castro government did not want to be seen as impeding the flow of culture.
In addition, organizers of the show said, several influential people worked to get permission for the trip. The actor Kevin Costner contacted the Cuban Interests Section in Washington on the group's behalf. Siegfried and Roy helped the ensemble land the engagement at the Stardust.
Pamela Falk, a law professor at the City University of New York, who worked to reunite the family of Orlando Hernández, the Yankees pitcher, also worked behind the scenes in this case, acting as the group's legal adviser, meeting its members as they arrived from Cuba at the Cancún airport in Mexico and escorting them to the United States.
The company's founder, Nicole Durr, who is German, said in an interview on Sunday that Cuban officials raided the troupe's offices in Havana in August and confiscated about $250,000 worth of instruments and equipment. Ms. Durr said she was arrested, questioned and given 24 hours to leave Cuba. She complied. She said the equipment had not been returned. The troupe is independent, and receives no state support.
After many delays, about two-thirds of the cast were able to leave Cuba and take part in an abbreviated version of their show at the Stardust here in late August. It will open with its full complement of players on Tuesday, after a news conference on Monday at which the defections will be announced officially.
Despite four decades of a United States-imposed trade embargo against Cuba, cultural exchanges between the two countries have often passed under the radar, but they have recently received harsher scrutiny. This year, the United States authorities denied visas to Ibrahim Ferrer, who gained worldwide fame as a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, and the pianist Chucho Valdés, among others.
In October 2003, five dancers with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba defected while on tour in the United States. They followed 15 others from the company who in the course of a year defected in Mexico, Spain and the Dominican Republic.
Cast members of "Havana Night Club," most of whom are in their 20's and 30's, have performed in 17 countries, including Britain, Germany, Spain, Thailand and Japan, since the troupe was founded seven years ago.
"My show is the love affair between the Spanish culture and the African drum,'' Ms. Durr said. She said it sketched scenes from Cuban night life in the 1940's and 50's and traced a time line up through the urban rhythms of present-day rappers.
The performers said they decided to stay in the United States after the Cuban authorities told them they could be jailed or at the very least not be allowed to continue as professional artists in Cuba if they persisted in their plan to work in Las Vegas.
Ariel Machado, 33, the group's manager, said it was never the performers' intent to defect. "For me,'' Mr. Machado said, "it was crucial to promote our Cuban culture here even when our government does not recognize us as an element of Cuban culture."
With that, Mr. Machado, who is divorced, pulled out a wallet photograph of his two children, an 8-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. Speaking in Spanish, like all his colleagues, he said he hoped that by living and working in the United States he would be able to guarantee his children a decent future.
"It's almost impossible to live apart from the people we love, but you realize when you're out of Cuba that you have opportunities to do important things," said Mr. Machado, who has an engineering degree. "You assume a responsibility for your family, and you can't rest until you do everything possible to help them."
He said that when he tried to explain his position to officials from Cuba's Ministry of Culture, "they left me in no doubt that if I continued with this project I ran the risk of going to jail for ignoring the government's wishes."
At least one performer in the ensemble has told his colleagues that he has not made up his mind whether to defect, and another said he would return to Cuba for family reasons.
Fearing repercussions back home, Lala Montes, 28, a singer, said she had not yet told her parents, her sister or anyone else in her family in Havana that she was planning to defect. For the moment, she reasoned, the less they know the better.
"It worries all of us here," Ms. Montes said. "We've all got family in Cuba, and they shouldn't have to pay for our decisions."