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11/21/04 - CUBAN ARTISTS DEFECT TO THE U.S. - 2004-11-18

Forty-three of forty-six members of a Cuban music and dance troupe performing in Las Vegas have been granted asylum in the U.S. Six other members of the troupe were granted parole into the United States at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. This is said to be the largest mass defection from Cuba to the U.S. since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Founded in 1998, the Havana Night Club musical and dance review presents a history of Cuban music. The troupe has toured sixteen countries over the past five years and first performed in Las Vegas in August. The artists faced possible prison terms if they returned home because the Cuban government had threatened to treat them as dissidents. The artists said Cuban authorities did not want them to perform in the U.S. in the first place.

The entertainers are leaving behind a Cuba that is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Electricity blackouts last many hours each day, prices are rising, housing shortages are mounting, and unemployment is rampant. In Cuba, these artists, like other workers, are denied freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the right to earn a decent salary to support themselves and their families. James Cason, the top representative of the U.S. in Cuba, says the Communist regime of Fidel Castro is increasingly unable to provide basic necessities like food to much of the population.

"Many Cubans without access to hard currency do not regularly get three square meals a day. The ration card only provides about ten days' sustenance, and the ration food supply is erratic. One ration store shopkeeper took to referring to eggs as 'americanos.' Why? Because the government always says that the Americans are coming, but they never arrive."

Cuban educational and health care systems, says Mr. Cason, are likewise deteriorating. Hospital patients have to bring their own food, sheets, and bandages. School supplies are scarce and teachers are quitting to work in the tourist sector.

For now, the Cuban people can only dream of the day when Castro is gone and prosperity and freedom return to their island. But for the Havana Night Club troupe, today is a great day. As music director Puro Hernandez put it, "Any artist in Cuba dreams of coming here [to the U.S.]. We are living our dreams by bringing our art to the best stage in the world."