Cuba Politics

Well orchestrated plot to allow/encourage Cuban dancers to defect in Las Vegas

Posted November 25, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Politics.

By Elaine De Valle, David Ovalle and Martin Merzer | Miami Herald

Behind-the-scenes lobbying and careful record keeping persuaded the Bush administration to reverse course and grant visas to the Cuban performers who ultimately defected this week.

The tale spans two continents and touches Fidel Castro and Siegfried & Roy, a resourceful German-born producer and a politically adept Cuban-born exile leader, Colin Powell and Kevin Costner and 53 Cuban singers, dancers and musicians.

It ends, for now, in U.S. immigration computers and on the stage—eight shows a week, mambo to reggathon—of the Wayne Newton Theatre at the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

And it ends, as well, with 50 members of the troupe called Havana Night Club uniting in one of the largest Cuban mass defections since Castro came to power 45 years ago, the beneficiaries of precision lobbying by supporters in Miami’s Cuban community, the group’s own fastidious record keeping, and an unusual reversal of the Bush administration’s restrictive policy on Cuban entertainers.

One key moment: when Cuban exile leader Joe Garcia learned from the group’s New York lawyer that many members wanted to defect.

Another: when the artists staged a risky public demonstration in Havana, documented by CNN.

And another: when the group’s lawyer convinced the State Department that the cha-cha-cha was indeed inherently Cuban and dumped 800 pages of financial records on U.S. bureaucrats.


‘‘This is the first group or only group that sought to establish that they were independent of the Cuban regime, and they did it with documentary evidence,’’ a U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Herald. “It was a compelling case.’‘

‘‘We had to put our credibility on the line . . . ,’’ said Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Powell on behalf of the group in early July and spearheaded the effort.

“These were people who were stuck, one more in the millions of victims of this regime. They asked for help.’‘

One of those people is Pedro Dikan, 31, a Havana Night Club singer: “When I left, me personally, I knew I wasn’t coming back. I’m crazy about starting a new life.’‘

Several facets of the affair remain unclear, including why the Cuban government ultimately let them leave and how they orchestrated their unusual degree of common purpose, but this is what is known about the genesis and evolution of this week’s defection of Havana Night Club:


Created six years ago by German director Nicole Durr, the group performed in 17 countries, sketching, in song and dance, Cuban nightlife from the early days of African influences through the big-band era of the 1940s and 1950s, and to the Cuban street rappers of today.

Then, last fall, came the chance they yearned for—an invitation from Siegfried & Roy to perform at the Stardust. In Las Vegas. In the United States.

‘‘Any singer would want to land here,’’ Dikan said. “I’m Cuban. This has been a dream that I never thought I’d realize.’‘


But the near-freeze in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations soon created two barriers:

o Since November 2003, U.S. policy has strongly discouraged—essentially banned—visits by Cuban artists. The stated reason: Most of the money earned by Cuban artists who work overseas ends up in Castro’s treasury.

‘‘Our decision to prohibit performers from traveling here was based on the notion that, in effect, they are Cuban government employees and were providing resources to the regime,’’ the State Department official said.

o The Castro government, apparently sensing the group’s discontent and the possible defections, refused to process departure papers. Cuban officials said Havana Night Club’s break with the nation’s writers and artists union—taken to demonstrate its independence—rendered it suspicious.


In large measure, the controversy began in January and February, when members of the group—already well known in international entertainment circles as a class act and popular draw—were denied U.S. visas.

‘‘They were treated like all other performing artists were,’’ the State Department official said. “The assumption was made that they were government employees and any proceeds they made here would accrue to the Cuban government.’‘

Cuban performers, just like Cuban architects in France or Cuban coaches in South America, normally are not paid directly by their overseas employers.

Instead, the money goes to the Cuban government and the workers receive a percentage of their earnings.

As word of the visa rejection spread, several high-profile Cuban exiles in Miami and elsewhere began applying pressure. The effort intensified after Garcia learned in late June from Pamela Falk, the group’s attorney, that many members wanted to defect.

‘‘We asked the State Department to reconsider, because we knew,’’ Garcia said.

Garcia wrote the letter to Powell on June 25, and he and colleagues lobbied U.S. senators and diplomatic workers who were adhering to the hard-line ban.


The effort drew criticism from some who believed that Havana Night Club was just another regime-approved organization that would serve as an ambassador for Castro.

‘‘All the right-wing folks attacked us because we were helping these supposed Communists come to America,’’ Garcia said. “Even on radio they made attacks personally on me and on Dennis Hays.’‘

Hays, a former U.S. ambassador to Suriname, ran the Cuban American National Foundation office in Washington before he joined a lobbying firm run by Al Cárdenas, former chairman of the state Republican Party. Emilio Gonzalez, formerly with the National Security Council, also works for Cárdenas and participated in the effort.


All are well plugged into the Bush administration and all worked their contacts on behalf of Havana Night Club.

‘‘We knew these people couldn’t defend themselves,’’ Garcia said. “We’ve always helped, and that means doing the right thing as opposed to the popular thing.’‘

The group still had to overcome a policy hurdle—proving that it was independent.

Enter Falk, an international trade attorney and professor at the City University of New York who represents the troupe.

At one point, she found herself having to convince bureaucrats that the cha-cha-cha is Cuban—proof that the group offered something “culturally unique.’‘

She also hauled out 800 pages of financial records—‘‘phone calls, receipts, everything,’’ she said—to prove Havana Night Club was independent.


It worked.

‘‘They established the wage scales that the individuals were paid and where the funds came from, and they did not come from the Cuban regime,’’ the State Department official said.

By the end of July, 46 cast members finally received U.S. visas.

(Seven others, who again were rejected because they had relatives in the United States, which clouded their motives and complicated their status, ended up in Germany and applied for parole from there into the United States. Six arrived Tuesday; the other’s paperwork is still pending.)

Did the State Department know some or most of the group members were going to defect? ‘‘They probably knew at some level,’’ Garcia said.

The Cuban government apparently did, too.

The group’s independence proved to be a roadblock back in Havana, where the government refused to issue the ‘‘white cards’’ required to leave the country.


Two days after the U.S. visas were issued, Durr was ordered out of Cuba.

In response, the troupe orchestrated a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, captured on tape by CNN.

‘‘The Cubans were very embarrassed by this,’’ Falk said. “A protest in Cuba is just not done.’‘

Meanwhile, Costner—the American actor who forged a relationship with Castro over a late-night dinner and movie in 2001—lobbied Cuban officials, Cárdenas said.

‘Mounting public opinion in the entertainment industry was telling Castro, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘’ Cárdenas said. “He finally, in the end, relented.’‘


And now, 50 of the 53 are not going back.

Singer Jose Manuel, 38, left his family behind in Cuba.

‘‘It’s like the Cuban saying, la necesidad lo hace todo,’’ necessity makes everything happen, he said. “I have my mom in Cuba, but this is my second family.

‘Havana Nights’ world in Cuba is over.’’

Member Comments

On November 25, 2004, publisher wrote:

President Bush, OFAC and CANF policy:

Continue punishing Cubans unless they want to be Americans.

On November 25, 2004, waldo wrote:

...unless they want to be Americans, and would cooperate on been used for anti-Cuba political propaganda. And good luck to all of them.

On November 25, 2004, Cubana wrote:

None of this would be necessary if Cuba were a free and democratic country. There is only one person responsible for the plight of these Cuban dancers and their families. That is Fideo Castro.

On November 25, 2004, waldo wrote:

You mean if Cuba would be a Capitalistic country. And how about the cruel and criminal democratic and not free bloqueo?

On November 26, 2004, Cubana wrote:

No I do not mean capitalist. I agree the blockade by the US on Cuba is unnecessary and counter-productive, giving the Castro government the perfect excuse for all its failed economic policies. However, the Cuban people have never been given the chance to elect the government that they want (the Communist Party of Cuba is the only political party legally allowed in Cuba) and as a result young Cubans are voting with their feet when they get the chance.

On November 26, 2004, Maceo wrote:

I think these people have been incredibly foolish and have been badly misled by Ms Durr.  They’ve been blinded by the bright lights of Vegas.

Wait until the show comes to an end and it suddenly hits home that they can’t return to Cuba or see their families and friends anymore.,,,

On November 26, 2004, Ziona wrote:

Or waite until they found out how wonderful, moral, undemanding,  undiscriminatory, uncomplicated, unruled, unintelligent, unfamiliar, undeversified, unhollywoodlike and unstressful Democracy and Freedom realy are.

On November 26, 2004, art wrote:

The USA has it so much better: not just one, but *two* parties!

That’ why you see such important differences between the party positions.


Maybe someday the US WILL actually be a democracy. Maybe there WILL be something to choose.

Maybe we’ll actuall see a US candidate up there saying something
important, that is not on the corporate agenda. Some day, when those millions in contributions don’t matter any more. Some day when even the lefties don’t say “If you don’t vote for D or R, you’re throwing your vote away!”

Here’ a quote I’d die to hear on the lips of a US Presidential candidate:

“It’ disgusting that a dirt bucket, third world economy like Cuba’ can afford a lower infant mortality rate than the most prosperous country in the world, the USA”.

Can you see Bush or Kerry saying that?

On that day, US might actually be closer to a democracy than Cuba. I’ll just hold my breath over here while I wait…

On November 27, 2004, Mark Rushton wrote:

The Communist Party is not a political party.  It is in fact barred by the Cuban Constitution from proposing / endorsing / assisting any candidate for public office.  For those who have any interest in being accurate, I suggest the excellent book by Peter Roman, “People’ Power: Cuba’ Experience with Representative Democracy”


On November 29, 2004, Cubana wrote:

Fact: The Communist Party of Cuba is constitutionally recognised as Cuba’ only political party. The Communist Party of Cuba or one of its front organisations approves candidates for any elected office.

Fact: There were 604 candidates for the 604 seats in Cuba’ National Assembly of the Peoples Power. Please could anyone explain how by any stretch of the imagination that could be described as democratic.

Fact: the Cuban people have NO right to change their government.

On November 29, 2004, Ziona wrote:

The great majority of the people in Cuba however, do not want American type democracy(much less so if it goes together with cut throat Capitalism), specially if it is imposed by bloqueos, force, intimidation, invations, sabotaje or assasesinations like the Yankees for decades have tried and failed. They also do not think much of the archaic US system where the people can not directly elect its two most important post; President and Vicepresident (some US Presidents have been elected without having the majority of the popular votes). They believe that the US electoral vote is a farse-deceiving-cheat system where the white rich aristrocatic elite controls, profits and nominates. Furthermore, majority of Cubans in Cuba also see that the only two parties D and R are actualy the same groupie (many bones and skulls brothers, and all rich and CIA) taking turns at the controls and pretending to fight and desagree to mislead the people to think that a real democracy exists. Moreover, only about half, and at times less than that, of the people vote resulting in a: partial, anemic or perhaps even less democracy?
If free elections(more than one party and free from outside interference and electronic voting machines) were held in Cuba, 
Fidel again Venceria.

On December 02, 2004, grant wrote:

This has noting to do with what your talking about….
but dose any one the names of the cast in Havana Night club