Cuban dancers made tough decision to seek asylum
November 20, 2004
LAS VEGAS – For years, Nilder Santos and his family had been hoping to win the most prized lottery in Cuba.
But each time it was held, the 25-year-old dancer and his parents were heartbroken when their names didn’t appear on the list of the lucky ones allowed to leave the poverty of their communist nation to chase the American dream.
Santos finally hit the jackpot, but only after joining the dance troupe Havana Night Club, whose singers, dancers and musicians had to fight for permission to leave their tightly controlled homeland and enter the United States to perform in Las Vegas.
“The best thing that they had hoped for, happened,” Santos said at his new home, the theater at the Stardust hotel-casino.
He and the 42 other members of Havana Night Club filed for political asylum last week – one of the largest groups of Cubans to defect to the United States – knowing there would be no return to their homeland, no reunion with family, no seeing friends left behind.
“I know I’m not going to see my family for a long time,” Santos’ girlfriend, Naomi Rojas, said as she fought back tears.
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The performers gambled that the unknowns of life in a new country could not be worse than the troubles of home.
“I say ‘yes’ because I know I will have a future,” said Rojas, a 21-year-old singer.
Santos’ father is a mechanical engineer, but works only sporadically. Rojas’ father, once a famous comedian, has to drive a taxi to make money since Cuba’s shaky economy shut down several of the island’s hotels.
“In Cuba, you work hard, very hard, every day,” said Rojas, who is from Camaguey. “But you can’t travel anywhere. Everything is prohibited.”
In the United States, Rojas said, “you can work for you, for your future.”
Formed six years ago, Havana Night Club has performed in 16 countries.
But their applications for permission to perform in the United States drew a harsh response from the Cuban government.
The group said they were threatened by Cuban officials, who suggested that if they made a U.S. tour their artistic careers would be over once they returned home.
“I received very clear the message in Cuba that if I continue with this … I know I can’t come back,” said troupe manager Ariel Machado, 33. “When I put my foot on the plane, I know in this moment I couldn’t go back.”
A few days before leaving for the United States, troupe member Jose David Alvarez, 25, told his mother goodbye.
“I said, ‘Mom, I want to do something about my life. I want to be a good artist,”‘ recalled Alvarez, who is from Guantanamo. “She said, ‘Go on,’ even though she was scared too.”
“If it’s not for the faith we had in each other, we wouldn’t have made it here,” said Alvarez, the host of “Havana Night Club – The Show.”
After two years of working on a gig in the United States, they finally arranged an engagement at the Stardust with the backing of famed Las Vegas performers Siegfried and Roy.
The show opened Aug. 21, several members short and three weeks late. Six group members who had been in Germany awaiting visas have been granted special status to enter the United States.
It will likely be weeks before the performers learn whether they have been granted asylum, but no Cuban asylum requests have been denied in the past two years.
The Cuban government rarely comments on defections and has not made any official statement about the troupe.
Two troupe members decided to return to Cuba, and a third is undecided. Organizers did not make them available for interviews.
Hairstylist Norberto Pedraga said in Havana that even if he had traveled to the United States with the troupe, he would have returned.
Although sad to be leaving his family and country behind, Alvarez said it was important for him to think of the future.
“If you don’t take risks, you’re never going to be able to make great things come true,” he said.