Cuba’s sports defectors
The 90-mile sprint
IN ONE night on July 15th Ariel Martínez, Cuba’s leading striker, twice showed a nifty turn of foot. On the field he set up the only goal of the game against Guatemala in a regional soccer tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina. Then, after taking a jubilant team bus back to the hotel, he gave his coach a hug and reportedly bolted “into the darkness”.
He was the fourth Cuban footballer to defect to the United States in the 19-day Gold Cup tournament. In the same week four Cuban rowers at the Pan American games in Canada gave their handlers the slip and are assumed to have sped across the United States border. A fortnight earlier, two national baseball players went missing after a friendly match with American rivals in North Carolina. They have not been heard from since.
The rash of defections comes at a sensitive time. On July 20th the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations after 54 years. But like the long-running trade embargo, America’s “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy remains in place, offering a path to citizenship to any Cuban on its soil (as opposed to in its waters). Worried that rapprochement will close that window, thousands of “boat people” have crossed the shark-infested Florida Strait this year, desperate to make it to American soil 90 miles (145km) away. Athletes are taking a short cut. “It’s as simple as getting into a car and driving away,” says Joe Kehoskie, an American former baseball agent.
For many of these sportsmen, neither fame nor fortune awaits in the United States. Instead they just hope to make a better living than on the Communist-ruled island. But baseball, Cuba’s national sport, offers juicier opportunities. Peter Bjarkman, an American author writing a book on the subject, says that in the past two years up to 140 talented Cuban players, ranging from young sluggers to veterans, have defected. The lure has been contracts of up to $80m offered to players good enough for a Major League Baseball (MLB) team. Such is the exodus that Cuba is about to cut its once-hallowed baseball league in half, from 16 regional teams to eight, he says.
It can be an ugly business. When a Cuban outfielder, Yasiel Puig, was whisked in a cigarette boat to Mexico in 2012, he was chasing a $42m contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Zetas, a murderous drug-running gang, helped move him to the United States border. His agent, who orchestrated part of the illegal manoeuvre, was sentenced to a month in an American prison in March. He forfeited some of his $2.5m cut.
The American embargo and Cuba’s own policies have perverse effects. The former forbids American agents and scouts from scouring Cuba for talent, or from buying directly from Cuban teams. Instead the MLB can only sign players from third countries, such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, encouraging what some call “human trafficking”. Since 2013 Cuba has allowed some athletes to play out of season in foreign countries such as Japan. But it would be as loth to sell its ball players to the United States as it would be to sell its rum distilleries back to the exiled Bacardi family, Mr Bjarkman says.
So the defections will probably continue. Political analysts doubt that Barack Obama will risk changing the wet-foot, dry-foot policy for fear of a backlash at home - at least until the embargo is lifted. Plus there are fringe benefits. Partly thanks to the absence of Mr Martínez and his teammates, in the next football match the United States crushed Cuba 6-0.
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