Monday, August 22, 2011

Defections prompt calls for change in Cuban sports

Posted on Monday, 08.22.11

Defections prompt calls for change in Cuban sports
Associated Press

HAVANA -- Cuba's version of the New York Yankees, the powerhouse
Industriales, won the country's 2010 baseball championship with
lights-out pitching by Armando Rivero and Joan Socarras and stellar
hitting from Leguim Barroso.

All three players have since defected, along with four other members of
the championship squad, leaving the punchless team struggling to a
losing season this year.

Those were hardly isolated cases. Five National Ballet dancers stayed
behind in Toronto after a performance in March. In June, soccer player
Yosniel Mesa shimmied down a hotel fire escape and hopped into a waiting
car in North Carolina.

Communist-run Cuba has always had a problem keeping its prodigious
sports and cultural talent on the island, not to mention its doctors,
lawyers and other professionals.

there now is new talk about how to cope with the problem. As President
Raul Castro's government embarks on a wide-ranging initiative to let
more people work for themselves instead of the state, there are
increasing calls for the same to apply in sports.

Cuba must find a way to "stop the robbery of players," said the
legendary former baseball player Victor Mesa, in comments reported in
state media. While hundreds of thousands of Cubans suddenly are going
into business for themselves, he said, it is unfortunate that "there is
no proposal to contract athletes to play abroad."

Mesa, who now manages Matanzas in the Cuban league, said he favors
letting Cubans play in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Japan, South Korea or
Mexico after eight seasons at home. He did not mention Major League

His comments reflected the chatter among Cuban athletes, coaches and
fans, but it was significant that they were even published. In the past,
sports people have gotten into trouble for disputing the official line,
and talk of defectors was discouraged.

Now, Mesa is not alone in airing his views.

"Times change ... There are Cuban players who have wanted to test their
luck," Rey Vicente Anglada, former manager of Industriales and the Cuban
national team, told Prensa Latina. "They see themselves as having
possibilities and see others who have done well."

"I don't see how that can stop," added.

Delegates at April's Communist Party summit on economic reforms approved
the general idea of "a reference to athletes being hired abroad,"
according to an official report on the debate, although the idea remains
under discussion.

There is precedent: In 1999, the Cuban Sports Institute allowed a few
volleyball and baseball players to work abroad, especially at the end of
their careers, at salaries negotiated by officials. But that opening was
shut in 2005.

Most Cuban sports players get monthly government salaries of $16.
Olympic medalists receive an additional lifetime monthly stipend: $300
for gold medal winners and less for other medalists.

The government pays for entertainment, education, health, travel,
housing and cars.

But athletes take notice when someone like hard-throwing pitcher Aroldis
Chapman leaves the island and signs a five-year contract with the
Cincinnati Reds for $30 million.

Defections drew rare mention recently in state newspapers Granma and
Juventud Rebelde, which detailed the "abandonment" by lefty pitcher and
reigning league rookie of the year Gerardo Concepcion during a
tournament in the Netherlands. After his departure, the national team
lost the championship game to Taiwan.

The papers also reported that captain Roberlandy Simon and players
Joandry Leal and Raydel Hierrezuelo had quit the national volleyball
team that was runner-up at the 2010 World Championship in Italy. The
reports said they left the team for personal reasons, but their absence
sparked rumors they wanted to defect. Hierrezuelo has since returned to
the squad. The Associated Press was unable to speak with the three.

Six volleyball players defected from the national team in 2001 during a
tournament in Belgium, the beginning of an exodus of many others.

All volleyball stars dream of the biggest leagues, said French coach
Philippe Blain, whose team has played Cuba four times this season. "For
this, the Cubans leave, and for them, there's the athletic aspect and
financial incentives."

From the beginning of the revolution he fomented more than 50 years
ago, baseball-loving Fidel Castro placed high value on sporting and
cultural talent to burnish his cause abroad.

Cuba eliminated for-profit sports in 1961, but Castro put significant
resources into a highly organized system of free education and training.
Successful athletes are considered heroes and national treasures.

When offered millions of dollars to fight Joe Frazier for the
heavyweight title in 1972, Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson famously
responded, "What is $1 million compared to the love of 8 million Cubans?"

Cuba has often punched above its weight in amateur competitions. At the
1992 Olympics in Barcelona, this island of 11 million people was fifth
in gold medals. But three years ago in Beijing, it came in 28th as a
wave of defections was felt.

There is no official tally of how many have left, but avid fans notice
when stars' names suddenly disappear from the roster for international
tournaments. Hundreds of athletes are believed to have abandoned the
country in the last decade, "a throat-slitting against Cuba robbing us
of minds, muscles and bones," Fidel Castro raged in a 2008 opinion column.

Speaking after his defection, Yosniel Mesa, the soccer player, said
staying in Cuba would have meant setting aside his dreams of going
professional and possibly earning millions of dollars.

He recounted how his Cuban coaches were in his hotel lobby late at night
when he sneaked out of his room to a fire escape.

"I brought a glass in my hand because if they saw me, I could say I was
going for ice," Mesa said.

Cuban painter and sculptor Jose Fuster, who lives in Cuba but has shown
his work in Europe, Latin America and the U.S., said the government
should consider treating athletes like artists, many of whom are allowed
to contract independently, with a part of their earnings going to the state.

"I pay taxes that are pretty high, but it's normal," Fuster said. "...
In Cuba, we have grown used to seeing the athletes as ours and think
that with professionalism, we will lose these athletes. ... We have to
urgently look for ways to change this mentality."

Still, the arts aren't immune either; ten people have left the Cuban
National Ballet in recent months, according to one member of the company.

"It's not something that makes me happy," dancer Alejandro Virelles
said, "but they want to widen their horizons, and it seems to me a good

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