43 members of Cuban troupe defect in search of 'artistic freedom'

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The Independent US

A group of 43 Cuban dancers, singers and musicians performing a Havana Night Club show on the Las Vegas Strip want asylum in the United States, they said yesterday.

A group of 43 Cuban dancers, singers and musicians performing a Havana Night Club show on the Las Vegas Strip want asylum in the United States, they said yesterday.

In the biggest mass-defection of Cuban performers to date, the members of the troupe were to submit their requests yesterday at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, the show's founder and director, the German-born Nicole Durr said.

"Art should have no boundaries," she added. "My artists stood up in one voice and said they wanted to go. 'We want to dance. We want to continue to dance'." Seven other cast members now in Germany were also seeking asylum and were expected to arrive in the US within a week, she said.

Three members had decided to return to Cuba for personal reasons. She said the decision was a tough one because most of the performers' families remained in Cuba.

The cast members, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, have performed in 16 countries, including Britain, Germany, Spain, Thailand and Japan since the troupe was founded seven years ago. But Cuban authorities opposed their intention to seek entry visas to the US.

Several influential people worked to obtain permission for the trip, including the actor Kevin Costner, who contacted the government's Cuban interests section in Washington on the group's behalf, and the entertainers Siegfried and Roy, who helped the group land the engagement at the Stardust Resort and Casino.

After the visas were granted Cuban officials allowed the troupe to leave Cuba because, cast members said, the issue had stimulated widespread attention in the US and because the Castro government did not want to be seen as impeding the flow of culture.

But Cuban officials did threaten to make life unpleasant for the performers on their return to Cuba, Ms Durr said. They were warned they would be jailed, or at the very least, not be allowed to continue working as professional artists in Cuba if they persisted in their plan to work in Las Vegas, she said.

She also said Cuban officials raided the troupe's office in Havana in August and confiscated about £140,000 worth of instruments and equipment. She said she was arrested, questioned and given 24 hours to leave Cuba which, she said, was another reason the cast members decided to leave too. "We've been together for more than six years," she said. "We are like a family."

The group was booked into the Stardust for a three-month run and performances were due to begin on 31 July but because of bureaucratic red tape and the intermittent arrival of performers, it fulfilled only a short engagement. Last night was the first night it was expected to perform with a full complement of artistes.

Ariel Machado, 33, the group's manager, said the performers had not originally planned to defect. "For me it was crucial to promote our Cuban culture here even when our government does not recognise us as an element of Cuban culture," he said.

"It is almost impossible to live apart from the people we love, but you realise when you're out of Cuba you have opportunities to do important things. 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".

One of the group's singers, Lala Montes, 28, said she had not yet told her family in Havana she was planning to defect. "It worries us all here," she said. "We've all got family in Cuba and they shouldn't have to pay for our decisions."