x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cuba plans to 'stop the robbery' of their athletes

Recent defections have rocked the Cuban sports community and have the country discussing changes to policy, including possibly letting athletes play abroad.

Happier times for Industriales, who won the Cuban National Series in March 2010. Since then, the defection of several of its stars has caused debate in Cuba to allow athletes to play abroad.
Happier times for Industriales, who won the Cuban National Series in March 2010. Since then, the defection of several of its stars has caused debate in Cuba to allow athletes to play abroad.

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 team.

Those were hardly isolated cases, as baseball players and other athletes have fled Cuba for decades - Communist-run Cuba has always had a problem keeping its prodigious sports talent on the island, not to mention its doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

In June, Yosniel Mesa, the Cuban football player, was competing at a tournament in the US when he shimmied down a hotel fire escape, hopped into a waiting car and defected.

Now, 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 athletes.

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, Mesa said, it is unfortunate that "there is no proposal to contract athletes to play abroad".

Mesa, who manages Matanzas in the Cuban league, said he favours letting Cubans play in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Japan, South Korea or Mexico after playing eight seasons at home. He did not mention Major League Baseball (MLB) in the US.

His comments reflected the chatter among Cuban athletes, coaches and fans, but it was significant that they were even published.

In the past, sports figures have got 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, the 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."

Delegates at a recent 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 athletes get monthly government salaries of US$16 (Dh59). The government pays for entertainment, education, health, travel, housing and cars.

Olympic medallists receive an additional lifetime monthly stipend: $300 for gold medal winners and less for others.

So athletes take notice when someone such as Aroldis Chapman leaves the island and signs a five-year, $30 million contract to pitch for the MLB's Cincinnati Reds.

Defections drew rare mention recently in state newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde, which detailed the "abandonment" by Gerardo Concepcion, the Cuban league rookie of the year, during a tournament in the Netherlands.

After his departure, the national team lost the championship game to Taiwan.

The papers also reported that Roberlandy Simon, the captain, and players Joandry Leal and Raydel Hierrezuelo had quit the national volleyball team which were runners-up at the 2010 World Championship in Italy. The reports said they left the team for personal reasons, but their absence sparked rumours they wanted to defect. Hierrezuelo has since returned to the squad.

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 Philippe Blain, the French coach, whose team have 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 organised system of free education and training. Successful athletes are considered national treasures.

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

Cuba has often punched above its weight in amateur competitions. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the island of 11 million people was fifth in gold medals won. 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 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, Mesa said staying in Cuba would have meant setting aside his dreams of playing professional football 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.

Jose Fuster, the Cuban painter and sculptor, who lives in Cuba but has shown his work in Europe, Latin America and the US, 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."

* Associated Press