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Defections prompt calls for change in Cuban sports
Anne-Marie Garcia, The 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 the team 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 Baseball.
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," Anglada 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 the 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 decision."