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"The Eldorado" nightclub in Havana, 1931. Oscar, a young émigré poet from the Ukraine, is becoming a regular, attracted by a popular singer "La India" (Tinima). Tonight, "La India" (Tinima) raises the roof on the club with a call for freedom, singing a song about Hatuey, a Taino chief, burned at the stake for resisting the Spanish in 1511. Oscar, who saw his own family murdered and village burned in pogroms in the Ukraine, has been researching the Spanish massacre of indigenous tribes to understand how such violence exists in the world. When "La India" walks up after the song to his table, he is floored, dances with her, and finds himself giving voice to his deepest desire to write a poem about his hero, Hatuey.
Tinima doesn't care about the poetry, but wants innocuous Oscar to start collecting letters and packages for her at a local post office. Her family is eight hundred miles away in the East of Cuba, starving, their small farm taken away by an international sugar factory. She works at the nightclub to support them, but is organizing with a waiter, Lazaro, and, his beloved, Alicia, a floorshow dancer, a supply of guns for a student uprising against the increasingly dictatorial president Machado. Ernesto the maître d tries to keep the situation in check. But when Machado's chief of security, Hernan, walks into the club setting up a "date" for "La India" with the President he knows there is trouble.
Oscar having seen a Revolution, Civil War, and pogroms in the Ukraine, welcomes the sanctuary he has found in Cuba and resists any political involvement. He begins writing his poem telling of Hatuey's arrival to Cuba in a canoe to warn the local tribes about the "Whites" and the massacres he has witnessed in Quisqueya (now Island of Hispaniola). The world of the club and the world of Oscar's poem intertwine theatrically: Lazaro in the club becomes Hatuey in his poem, Alicia, the leader of the tribe, Ernesto, the spiritual healer. Tinima begins to appreciate that there is something very real behind his poem that Oscar writes every night in the club; he becomes increasingly drawn into helping her with the uprising against his better judgement. They fall in love.
With the threat of the president coming to the club, Tinima asks Oscar to take two cases of "Hatuey Beer" actually containing guns, from the club basement and hide them in his room for her. Oscar is reluctant, but when he realizes her life is endangered, agrees to do so. As he finds the cases in the basement, he questions what to do with them and the story his poem pours forth telling how the Tainos tried to rid the Island of the Spanish by dumping all their gold into the ocean, thereby hoping to bring peace and an end to violence. Oscar wonders whether he should dump the guns into the ocean. Alone, in his room with two cases of guns his dilemma continues as the conquistador Don Diego Velasquez enters the world of his poem enchanted with the paradise of the New World, but determined to triumph over the Indians. Oscar witnesses what the Spanish do with guns and how the tribes try to resist, electing Hatuey as their leader. Oscar invokes the senseless slaughter on both sides. When Velasquez starts interrogating Oscar and threatening Tinima, Oscar decides to return to the club with a gun.
At the club, The President invites Tinima to dance. Oscar cuts in, and is immediately taken away and locked in the basement, where Alicia is shot as a conspirator after refusing to give information. As the drama unfolds the world of Oscar's poem and the club merge. Lazaro is wanted for killing one of Hernan's men. Velasquez goes hunting with a bloodhound for his prize, Hatuey. Tinima slips downstairs into the basement and urges Oscar to escape. He is frozen clutching his notebook, not wanting to abandon her. He reveals the story that haunts him, of not being able to save his best friend Ana, whom he saw raped multiple times and killed by Cossacks. Tinima assures him that she will survive, and he must save himself and his poem. Oscar is brought in to "translate" for Velasquez, and repeats Hatuey's words of resistance. Tinima exits the club on The President's arm, after he determines to torch the club. Oscar remains with his hero, Hatuey, who is offered a chance to convert at the stake by a Catholic priest. Hatuey resists, saying if there are Spanish or Catholics in Heaven, he has seen what they have done to his people and does not want to go there. He goes up in flames. Oscar comes to his senses in time to escape with his poem, as the flames engulf the club. Audience sees the bright white light of Yara that will shine forever over Cuba and beyond. We hear voices of Tinima and the chorus rising in a chant for freedom: "I am the light, the light of Yara."