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Cuba's lost cultural treasure

Cuba promises change, but its luminaries won't wait

MIAMI — The talent is extraordinary and it keeps coming.

Despite promised changes in Cuba after the political retirement of Fidel Castro, a steady stream of young stars continues to abandon the island in search of new lives.

Ballet dancers, baseball and soccer players, singers and TV entertainers — the latest array of Cuban emigres indicates that for many, change isn't coming soon enough.

"For all the talk of change, there's a great feeling of hopelessness in Cuba," said Yhosvany Carmona, a 29-year-old actor who escaped to Miami this month. "Over the years they always made promises things would get better, and they never did. People are tired of those games."

When Fidel Castro temporarily transferred power to his brother, Raul Castro, due to health issues in July 2006, the younger brother quickly opened a debate about economic change that promised to ease the rigid communist system preferred by Fidel Castro.

But the lifting of bans on cell phones and the sale of computers and other consumer goods have so far had little impact on most people's daily lives.

After almost two years, initial optimism has given way to resignation that Cuba's communist rulers aren't considering broader reforms. That has been matched by a steady rise in Cubans leaving the island illegally.

Cuba does not allow its citizens to travel abroad without official exit permits, often forcing would-be emigres to take desperate measures. Some seize the opportunity while performing abroad on officially approved travel visas. Others flee the island by boat with the help of smugglers.

A rising reggaeton star, Elvis Manuel, drowned with four others in April after their boat capsized in bad weather, 50 miles from Key West. Their bodies were never found.

Chance to dance

The flight of high-profile Cuban athletes is hardly new. Baseball players Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and half-brother Livan Hernandez made successful careers in the major leagues after they left Cuba in the mid 1990s.

But the latest list of Cuban stars is as impressive as it is long.

In December 2006, three top Cuban boxers left their team during a tournament in Venezuela. In March, seven members of Cuba's under-23 national soccer team slipped out of a Tampa hotel during an Olympic qualifying tournament.

In May, Olympic bronze medalist Yurisel Laborde left Cuba's women's national judo team during a competition in Miami.

In May, 19-year-old Dayan Viciedo, a top baseball prospect, arrived in the United States after fleeing via Mexico. He was following in the footsteps of second baseman Alexei Ramirez, who left Cuba in September and now plays for the Chicago White Sox.

And it's not just athletes.

In the past six months, five top Cuban ballet dancers have found their way to Miami.

"You reach a moment as a mature dancer when you have to leave if you want to accomplish more on an international level," said Miguel Angel Blanco, 25, one of three principal dancers with the world-famous Cuban National Ballet, who left the island in December. "But they won't let you travel. They think they own you."

So many Cuban ballet dancers have arrived lately that they have formed their own company — Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, which trains at a ballet school in a Pompano Beach strip mall.

"It's a question of artistic freedom," said Pedro Pablo Pena, joint artistic director of the company. "These are top dancers who could have careers anywhere in the world, but they weren't being given a chance in Cuba."

Dreaming in Miami

In December, one of Cuba's top TV celebrities, Carlos Otero, used an authorized trip to Canada to divert to Miami with his family.

He was hired to host a variety show on a local Spanish language TV channel, AmericaTeVe, titled Pelli­zcame que Estoy Sonando (Pinch Me Because I'm Dreaming).

He says he got the idea for the show's name while driving on Interstate 95 when he told his wife to pinch him because he couldn't believe he was in the United States.

Otero was one of the best-paid government entertainers in Cuba. He had several opportunities to flee during previous trips abroad, but waited to make his move until December, when Cuban officials allowed him to take his wife and children on the trip to Canada.

"Some of these people were very close to the Cuban authorities," said Hugo Cancio, a Cuban music promoter in Miami. "They know the system is going down and they don't want to be identified with it, so they are jumping ship. I don't blame them."

Max Lesnik, a Cuban radio commentator in Miami and regular visitor to the island, said Cuba had erred in restricting travel. "Art shouldn't have frontiers," he said.

But he questioned whether the current exodus was any different from the past 50 years. "We tend to exaggerate it," he said.

Irresistible pull

"The U.S. has always been a magnet that attracts all kinds of people," he said, noting that there have been large waves of Cuban migrants dating back to the first war of independence against Spain in 1868.

Cuban officials increasingly recognize that change is needed to rescue the country's anemic economy in the face of global price increases for food and energy. One senior official recently warned publicly that the Cuban revolution might self-destruct if economic problems were not resolved.

Cuba complains that many of those who leave are lured by promises of riches in the United States. Friends of the drowned reggaeton singer, Manuel, say he had been offered a big recording contract by music producers in Miami.

No guarantees

The transition to Miami isn't easy, said Issac Delgado, one of Cuba's hottest salsa stars who left the island in November 2006. "Many artists end up stagnating here," he said. "They think they are going to get quick results, but you have to work hard and adapt to this society. It's a very competitive market."

Carmona, the actor who fled to Miami, gave up a relatively well-paying job, earning 1,200 pesos a month (about $50), three times the average salary in Cuba, as host of a Sunday midday children's show, Super 12.

He managed to get permission to leave the country for a fictitious film project in the Dominican Republic. From there he joined a boatload of Cubans on a smuggling run to Puerto Rico.

He doesn't know what to expect in Miami. "I may never get back behind the camera, but at least I'll be free," he said.

David Adams can be reached at

November 2006: Top salsa singer Issac Delgado walks across the U.S.-Mexico border into Laredo, Texas, bringing his wife and two daughters. He briefly lived with relatives in Tampa before moving to the Miami area.

December 2006: Boxers Yan Barthelemy, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlanier Solis abandon their team while competing in Venezuela.

September 2007: Baseball player Alexei Ramirez defects and signs with the Chicago White Sox.

December 2007: Three principal dancers from the Cuban National Ballet, Taras Domitro, Hayna Gutierrez and Miguel Angel Blanco, cross the U.S. border in Buffalo while visiting Canada for a performance of The Nutcracker. Four members of the Cuban National Circus and six members of the musical group Los Tres de La Habana leave while on tour in Mexico. TV personality Carlos Otero decides not to return to Cuba during a trip to Canada.

January: Seven members of the Spanish Ballet of Cuba cross the U.S. border from Mexico after performing in a dance festival.

March: Seven soccer players defect at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa.

April: Reggaeton artist Elvis Manuel, 18, and two associates go missing after their smuggling vessel capsizes in rough seas 50 miles from Key West, according to survivors.

April: Ballet dancer Carlos Quenedit crosses the U.S. border from Mexico and requests asylum.

May: Olympic bronze medalist Yurisel Laborde leaves Cuba's women's national judo team during a competition in Miami. Baseball player Dayan Viciedo leaves Cuba on a boat bound for Mexico.

June: Actor Yhosvany Carmona arrives in Miami after smuggling his way to Puerto Rico by boat.

Cuba promises change, but its luminaries won't wait 06/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 10:54am]
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