Posted on Wed, Nov. 02, 2005
11 Cuban singers defect
Cuba's National Choir is 11 members short: they defected last week in Canada.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
The Cuban National Choir is missing a couple of baritones and is particularly light on bass singers after 11 of its 40 members defected last week in Toronto midway through a Canadian tour.
The desertions decimated the island's flagship choir, but -- as they say in that business -- the show did go on. Somewhat altered concerts continued last week to standing ovations.
''I got a call last Monday at 8:15, saying 11 singers were not at the airport. They had developed a reputation for not showing up for buses on time, so I thought they just missed the bus,'' said Robert Missen, the Canadian agent who organized the tour. 'The tour manager said, `No, Bob. They're not here. They defected.' ''
The defections took place after a concert in Toronto on Oct. 24, the night before the rest of the group flew to British Columbia for more shows. The first few had clearly planned the defections in advance. Others jumped ship when they saw their colleagues walking out of the hotel, bags in hand.
''We sent a car over to the hotel to pick them up,'' said poet Ismael Sambra, president of the Cuban-Canadian Foundation. ``Then we realized that wasn't enough. We had to send another car, a bigger one.''
Sambra said in fact there had been ''up to 20 defections'' but that some singers who went back to the hotel for luggage were detained by Cuban security -- an allegation Missen flatly denies.
''Whether it was 11, 15 or 20, it was a massive desertion,'' Sambra said. ``It was a blow to the dictator.''
Sambra said the singers sought refuge at the homes of various Cuban exiles in Toronto. The Globe and Mail newspaper said six are already in the United States with relatives.
Immigration officials in Miami said they had not heard of the case, and Cuban-American National Foundation director Alfredo Mesa said he hasn't heard from the defectors. A Canadian immigration service spokeswoman said she could not comment.
After a publicity blitz in Canada, the singers stopped talking publicly for fear of reprisals to their families, Sambra said. ''It is hard to choose between your freedom and your family,'' baritone Ernesto Cendoya-Sotomayor told the Globe and Mail. ``But this was my one opportunity to escape.''
He said he had a wife and 4-year-old daughter in Cuba.
''Cuban police will probably tell my family I am a traitor to the revolution,'' he told another Canadian paper.
It was Canada's largest defection of Cubans since 2002, when 24 who visited Toronto for World Youth Day sought asylum.
Founded by Argentine-born guerrilla Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara, the Cuban National Choir started in 1959 as an army choir.
Two more concerts are scheduled this week before the group goes home . It took Missen a year of red tape to organize the tour. After two trips to Havana, he suspected some of the singers might stay behind. But he had his hopes. 'I thought, `Please let them wait until the end of the tour.' '' Missen said.