Sunday, October 20, 2013

Are Cuban Sports Truly Changing?

Are Cuban Sports Truly Changing?
October 18, 2013
Ronald Quiñones

HAVANA TIMES — A few short weeks ago, whenever you asked anyone on the
street whether they thought Cuban sports were actually changing, it
didn't take long to hear the negative. One had the impression one was
talking to one of the island's more renowned cartoon characters, Elpidio
Valdes, and hearing his unforgettable catch-phrase every time: "You'd
have to see it to believe it, pal!"

Well, it seems that, suddenly, one straw broke the camel's back. I say
this because today's developments haven't come about without slip-ups,
Hollywood-like escapades, players "tendering their resignations" and
even direct demands, most voiced in hallways, but some courageously
addressed to many officials, who would put on an angry face whenever
they heard any complaints, as though they were being asked to give up
part of their own salaries.

Now, to the surprise of the common Cuban, the demands of fans, and the
island's athletes themselves, have finally made it to paper: the freedom
to enter into contracts with foreign teams, to collect the entirety of
their individual and team prizes, and to earn better salaries in
general, in dependence of their performance.

Before, only athletics, volleyball, judo, boxing, wrestling and chess
enjoyed some kind of monetary "privilege", the small sum of 15 percent
of the earnings for the athlete and 4 percent for the coach, in the case
of individual sports. In team sports, not more than 50 percent of the
earnings had to be distributed among all members.

When it came to salaries, Olympic gold medalists received a
300-dollar-a-month salary, while silver and bronze medalists earned 200
and 100 dollars a month, respectively. World championship gold, silver
and bronze medalists received 150, 100 and 50 dollars a month, respectively.

That said, even though Cuban boxer Felix Savon won three Olympic gold
medals and six world championships, he only got paid for one of those
medals. Now, non-retired athletes get a better deal: they get paid for
every medal they earn. It is said they will also get compensation when
they retire, but this hasn't been explained yet.

Right now, therefore, many are asking themselves how much someone like
Mijain Lopez would be earning, a two-time Olympic champion and four-time
world champion, someone who has also won two Olympic silver medals.

In addition to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) earnings, which are easy
to calculate (1,400 CUC), Lopez would be getting paid for his three
Pan-American titles (1,250 Cuban pesos each) and receiving his Cuban
peso incentives for his participation in the Olympics and world
championships (some 1,400 Cuban pesos).

Needless to say, though this is an extremely high salary by Cuban
standards, it is far from obscene when compared to what his counterparts
around the world make, and even to what some Cubans take in (and not
precisely through the sweat of their brows).

The weekend following the announcement of these measures, most opinions
on the street coincided on one thing: that justice had finally been done
(or was beginning to be done). Below are a number of the opinions voiced
in response to the new policy:

Alejandro (driver): "I think we need to be a little quicker about these
things. They handed out the hats so late that they may not find many
willing heads now. Had they continued in their hard-headed ways, we
would have been left without a single top level athlete."

Yuri (secretary): "It's a very good decision, I'm happy about it. I hope
all of the country's workers also begin to receive decent salaries, as
they are the ones who keep the country going, who shoulder most of the
economic and social burdens."

Roberto: "I believe it is a very fair decision, they deserve it. We will
no longer be persecuting Cubans who choose to play on foreign baseball
teams. We also want to see our players playing in major leagues on TV.
But they should also do the same for doctors, engineers and other
professionals in the country, they also need improvement in their lives."

Alejo (medical doctor): "I still think athletes should be further down
the list of priorities. We're really not helping ourselves encouraging
inflation by bolstering a non-productive sector. When all is said and
done, this is a small cosmetic change, something they know will make
people very happy. The problem of salaries in Cuba is so serious that
they had to do something, and the easiest and cheapest thing to do was
to give a small sector more elbow room. Most people have the same
problems athletes had."

Orlando: Of course, other professionals could feel their work is being
underestimated. This is fair, but it's still only letting a bit of steam
out of a cooker that couldn't take any more pressure. My question is: do
we have to do what athletes have been doing in recent years (break the
rules, quit, have a poor performance) to get their attention?

Alexis (carpenter): "You crawl before you walk and you walk before you
run. Now everyone wants to be paid better. These athletes are filling up
stadiums and that's the money that will be going into their salaries. I
know there are other professionals who contribute a lot to society, but
we can't solve all our problems at once. Let's wait and hope each of the
country's sectors begins to improve, one by one."

Despaigne's Experiences

Michel Enriquez made history some months ago when he became the first
Cuban baseball player to play in a professional league without having
had to retire from the sport in Cuba. His contract with the Mexican team
Piratas de Campeche ("The Campeche Pirates") was met with great
expectations, not only in the two countries involved, but in many places
around the world as well.

Ultimately, Enriquez was unable to shine on Mexican soil due to an
injury. When Cuban players Alfredo Despaigne and Yordanis Samon were
hired by the same team, things took a different turn. Samon returned to
Cuba a week later because, according to the Pirates front office, they
were looking to him for a leadoff batter, not a power hitter. The flip
side was his compatriot from Granma, Despaigne, sought for his power,
and who set a new precedent.

Despaigne concluded his stint in the Mexican Baseball League with a .338
average, having recorded 45 hits (including six doubles and eight
home-runs) in 133 at-bats. He also drove in 24 runs and had an OBP of
0.364, slugging average of 0.564, and an OPS of 928.

The right-fielder made a big impact in Mexico, where he was considered
the year's top acquisition, despite having arrived to the season rather
late. As for his salary, he retained 80 percent of the earnings (eight
of the 10 thousand dollars agreed to), which is the opposite of what had
happened with sports contracts before then.

In Cuba, Despaigne's effort in the Mexican league was not given the
promotion he deserved in the media. This did not stop baseball
aficionados from evaluating his performance upon the player's return,
and to comment about this unprecedented experience:

Jesse Gomez (computer engineer): "He's one of the great ones. I hope all
Cuban baseball players get the opportunity to shine in any foreign league."

Jose Hermida: "I am very happy these types of arrangements are happening
now, and I hope this will keep Cuban players from emigrating. The
problem is that the difference in salaries between the MLB and the
Mexican League is tremendous, and though these new measures may help,
the Majors will always be a temptation for many. I hope we stop losing
sports talents this way."

Alfredo Carrazana (medical doctor): The deals with the MLB are
different, but, someone as intelligent as he doesn't need to go off to
the MLB. I hope more contracts with other players are signed next year."

Julio (teacher): It was hard to speak of patriotic feelings before they
took these steps. One should be able to make use of their talent
wherever they wish and to return to home and simply get taxed for one's

A New Era Begins

Opinions aside, the truth of the matter is that this radical new measure
marks a turning point for Cuban sports.

I don't think the migration of baseball talents will be considerably
reduced by this, but athletes in other disciplines may feel a greater
incentive to stay in Cuba, where the money earned goes a lot farther.

My only hope is that we don't see a replay of 1998, when Cuba's national
volleyball team was authorized to enter into a contract with Italy and
the whole tape was rewound when some players returned with injuries.

We'll likely be seeing these kinds of things again, but, if we throw out
the baby with the bathwater again, we'll be truly hard pressed to return
to the days of glory Cuba enjoyed back in the days of the socialist
bloc. The times have indeed changed.

Source: "Are Cuban Sports Truly Changing? - Havana" -

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