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INTRO: The dance company "Havana Night Club" is getting world-wide publicity for their political, rather than musical act. This week Las Vegas was the site of what seems to be the largest mass defection of Cubans in history. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
SOUND: Music Up and Under
PLASKON: Opening night of the two hour Havana Night Club musical was performed in the Wayne Newton theatre, the first Cuban ensemble of its size to visit the US in more than 50 years. The performers idealized playing here ever since a German producer suggested it in 1998. Performer Jose David Alvarez Del Valle remembers the promise that this would someday be reality.
ALVAREZ DEL VALLE: She came there and started this crazy dream which is the Havanna Night Club and moving on, seven years now.
PLASKON: Nicole Durr, or ND as she likes to be called, recruited 50 dancers, singers and musicians, some of them former members of the Cuban national ballet, National Folkloric Group of Cuba and state sponsored cabaret. They started traveling a year later: Japan, Britain, Thailand among 16 countries and performed for 2 million people.
SOUND: Music out
PLASKON: But all odds were against a playbill in America. Cubans are almost always denied visas - especially since the U-S added the island to a list of terrorist sponsors. Pianist Chucho Valdes and Buena Vista Social Club singer Ibrahim Ferra were recently denied visas. Earlier this year 65 Cuban scholars who applied to attend a convention in Las Vegas were also turned away. The initiatl petition to get the Havana Night Club company into the US was unsuccessful too - denied in February. At that point, Durr recruited Siegfried and Roy's assistance, and the actor Kevin Costner lobbied too. They were successful in gaining enough visa's for a scaled down version of Havana Nightclub - at the Stardust in August. To get the whole troupe into Las Vegas, Durr enlisted the help of City University of New York Professor Pamela Falk. Falk had brokered grain shipments to Cuba and persuaded Fidel Castro to let Cuban baseball star and defector Orlando Hernandez re-join his family.
FALK: Everything that could have possibly have occurred during this process did, both political and non-political.
PLASKON: The visa approval process meant proving the performers were independent from the Cuban government, navigating reorganized U-S immigration departments and proving that these Cubans were in fact trying to spread culture and not propaganda.
FALK: I'm a JD, PHD, what do I know about the Cha Cha Cha?
PLASKON: She presented five expert testimonies that the Cha Cha Cha has a unique Cuban heritage - a dance the troupe takes pride in performing.
SOUND: CHA CHA CHA
PLASKON: Dozens then joined the chorus of support for the performers including Nevada Senators Ensign and Reid and even Governor Gwinn. But David Thronson Co-Director of the Immigration Clinic at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law says politically it's less about promoting the spread artistic culture than destabilizing communist countries.
THRONSON: This is a good PR thing for the US in that we want to take a harder line on Cuba. And issuing these visas is consistent with the past. In the 1980's if you were from Nicaragua, boom, you were in because it had heavy communist influence. Dissident Jews from Russia during the cold war, boom they got in. Cuba is kind of a hold over of the cold war.
PLASKON: Part of that hold-over is buried in the law. The U-S Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 awards residency status to any Cuban who has been in the U-S for a year - something not afforded to any other nationality. No sooner had the U-S approved the visas, the performers said the Cuban government threatened to deny them their old jobs and refused to issue the group exit visas. So Durr convinced the troupe to slip through exit visa applications individually. That didn't go over well.
DURR: I was arrested. I was thrown out of the country. I can never go back.
PLASKON: The performers kept applying to come to the U-S and hopping on planes. Falk says she spent three days straight escorting them through U-S Customs.
FALK: By the end of it the state department was in direct contact with the port authorities of all the airports we were flying into.
SOUND: Performers waiting.
PLASKON: This week Falk and the rest of the performers waited at the Airport for the last of the troupe to arrive. Performers like Puro Vicente was among them. Most say they never intended to be pawns in a political game.
VICENTE: I have nothing to do with politics. I am a person who defends art at every moment.
PLASKON: Several of the dancers and musicians say the same thing. Art may be the driving force behind this mass defection, but it's politics that has kept a show like this out of the US for nearly 50 years, it's politics that delivered their U.S. visas, and its politics that has forced them to choose between their families and careers. The Havana Night Club does perform one vaguely political number.
SOUND: Coffee song up and under
PLASKON: Dancers mimic farmers toiling in Latin America's coffee bean fields to serve American's gourmet beverage market. For KNPR, I'm Ky Plaskon in Las Vegas
SOUND: Coffee song up and out.