KEN RITTER | Associated Press Writer
Forty-three members of a Cuban dance troupe performing at a Las Vegas casino asked for asylum in the United States on Monday in the one of the biggest mass defections of entertainers from the communist country.
Members of the cast said they took the step because they feared they would be forced to quit performing if they returned to Havana. They said Cuban authorities did not want them to perform in the United States in the first place.
“This is a brave and bold action by my young artists,” Nicole “N.D” Durr, the German creator of the Havana Night Club show, said of the dancers, singers, musicians and stagehands. “It’s done with sorrow, leaving family behind, but with resolve.”
Arriving by bus to submit asylum paperwork at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, the performers responded in unison when Durr asked in Spanish if they were frightened by the action they were taking.
“No!” they said.
There was no immediate reaction from Fidel Castro’s communist government.
For more than 40 years, Cuban refugees have routinely been given asylum in the United States. Applicants usually receive a response in less than two months.
Seven other cast members now in Germany had applied earlier and were granted U.S. asylum Monday, said Pamela Falk, a City University of New York professor advising the troupe. They were expected to arrive in Las Vegas on Tuesday, she said. At least two cast members have decided to return to Cuba, and one was wavering, Falk said.
Group members slowly entered the country months ago and performed in Las Vegas from Aug. 21 to Sept. 6, with a short encore engagement last month. The troupe’s show was due to reopen Monday at the Stardust Resort and Casino and run until Jan. 11.
In July, promoters complained that Cuban officials were not backing the group’s first planned trip to the United States, although the troupe had made 16 other trips to countries such as Japan and Germany.
Cuban authorities said they did not support the effort because they did not believe the United States would grant visas—especially since it rejected a similar request in February. However, the United States did grant the visas.
But Durr said that when the show’s members decided to come to Las Vegas, the Cuban government threatened to make life unpleasant upon their return.
Durr also said she was thrown out of Cuba and told she could never return, and said that was part of the reason the cast members decided to leave Cuba.
“We’ve been together for more than six years,” she said. “We are like a family.”
Ariel Machado, the troupe’s production head, said the performers were concerned about family and friends remaining in Cuba.
“We’re not really worried for us,” Machado said. “The difficulty is for the people we leave behind. ... It’s a struggle that we were born into.”
Joe Garcia, an official with the Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro group in Miami, said: “Cuba had sort of warned these guys. They basically broke up the group.”
In 1993, about 34 Cuban athletes defected to Puerto Rico during a tournament, 16 members of a traveling dance troupe remained in Spain, and 10 members of a Havana university choir performing in Venezuela stayed behind. That same year, Cuban singer Albita Rodriguez and her band defected to the United States.
Perhaps the best-known Cuban defector in the late 1990s was baseball pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who defected in 1997. He established residency in Costa Rica and signed with the New York Yankees in 1998.
In 2003, five dancers with the National Ballet of Cuba slipped away during a U.S. tour and asked for asylum.