Cuban choir members hit high note for freedom
By MARINA JIMÉNEZ
TORONTO -- Ernesto Cendoya-Sotomayor, a Cuban baritone, thought about defecting even before he landed in Toronto on a Canadian tour with the prestigious Coro Nacional de Cuba.
This was his first foreign tour -- and the 27-year-old singer saw it as his one chance to escape the repression and fear that marks his life in Cuba, where the indomitable Fidel Castro has ruled since the Communist revolution in 1959, the same year the choir was founded by Ernesto (Che) Guevara.
After a performance Sunday in a Toronto church, Mr. Cendoya-Sotomayor saw two fellow singers fleeing the hotel, suitcases in hand. He knew he had to act quickly. He called the Cuban-Canadian Foundation and within an hour, the foundation's president had sent a car to collect him, and two more singers.
"It is hard to choose between your freedom and your family. But this was my one opportunity to escape," said Mr. Cendoya-Sotomayor in an interview yesterday in the home of Ismael Sambra, a Cuban exile and the foundation's president. The singer is so worried about the safety of his four-year-old daughter and wife in Havana that he did not want his face to appear in a photograph.
In all, 11 of the 41-member choir managed to flee the hotel between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, when Digna Guerra, the choir's manager, discovered the absences. In an emergency meeting, she warned the remaining singers that the Cuban government would retaliate against their family members if they tried to seek asylum here, according to Mr. Sambra.
Before this, Mr. Sambra had organized a second vehicle to pick up several more defectors. Others escaped with the help of Cuban-Canadian friends, while one unlucky singer who went back to the hotel to collect her belongings lost her chance. All 11 who defected were taken to the homes of Cuban exiles, including Marta Sanchez, a senior member of the choir and an influential Cuban musician, who rode a bus to Ottawa yesterday morning and is staying there with friends.
Mr. Sambra believes that six in the group have already crossed the border and entered the United States where they have relatives. The United States often recognizes Cuban refugees. The others spent yesterday at Citizenship and Immigration offices filling out forms requesting asylum on the grounds of political persecution.
Mr. Cendoya-Sotomayor said the singers did not plan to seek asylum en masse, but instead there was a kind of "domino effect." He said he discussed the idea in Cuba with two other singers, but was uncertain if it would be possible. He imagined there were government informants within the choir. And once they arrived in Canada for their two-week tour, the singers were only given $20 a day for meals, and their performance pay was withheld, he said.
In the end, however, the other singers helped them by not reporting them to the manager, and in fact one of those who fled is the delegation's deputy head, Mr. Sambra said. "The singers who didn't escape because they have children in Cuba helped the others. They watched out for the security and then said 'fight for me, good luck,' " he added.
Amnesty International has cited Cuba for human-rights abuses. Sixty-one dissidents arrested in a March, 2003, crackdown remain in jail. They were sentenced to 20- and 25-year prison terms for crimes against the state. "For Canadians, Cuba is a tourist paradise. But for Cubans, it is like a big jail," Mr. Sambra said.
Mr. Cendoya-Sotomayor is living in Mr. Sambra's house with two female singers, aged 29 and 30. "I would like to bring my family here and we would all like to go on singing in Canada. We will form another choir and call it Freedom Chorus," he said.
The rest of the choir, however, travelled to British Columbia on Monday where it is performing in various cities in the interior and then in Vancouver on Saturday with the Vancouver Chamber Choir. A spokesperson for the Vancouver choir said all but 11 members of the Cuban choir had arrived in British Columbia.
The mass defection of Cubans was the biggest since 2002, when 24 pilgrims who travelled to Toronto for World Youth Day sought asylum.
From 2000 until June, 2005, 1,017 Cubans have sought asylum in Canada
and the acceptance rate has fluctuated between 66 and 70 per cent. Some
abandon their claims and go to the United States.