One jumped from the airport, another jumped out of the hotel room window: this year, a record number of Cuban baseball players have jumped out, as the island is suffering from its worst economic crisis in 30 years.
On Monday, the team that went to compete in the World Cup under 23 in Mexico returned to Cuba. Of the 24 players on the way out, only half were left.
This “World Cup of defections” is “unique in baseball history”, explains AFP Francys Romero, a journalist who specializes in the subject and author of the book “The dream and reality, stories of emigration in baseball Cuban”.
One of these players told him that he should have started from the second floor of the hotel where the team lived, and grabbed a palm tree to reach a waiting car.
The phenomenon is not new, “it began in 1991, when a pitcher for the Havana team, (René) Arocha, left the selection at Miami Airport,” he recalls.
Since then, “two to three” players have left each year, the record so far being nine in 1996. Many also leave legally, an option possible since the migration reform in 2013, but complicated by the sharp reduction in flights due to the pandemic.
Behind this emigration, the abolition of professional sports in Cuba since the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959, which is forcing many athletes to pursue a better career elsewhere.
– “A war” –
If their number has exploded this year, the profile has also changed: younger and not always determined for a great international career, Francys Romero emphasizes. It’s urgent? “Change your life, and the sporting aspect comes after”.
On social networks, some Cuban internet users criticized them … but many just wished them luck, aware of the difficulty of living on the island, plagued by severe shortages of food and medicine.
Already in June, during the pre-Olympic tournament in Florida, the three stars on the team and the psychologist had jumped off. The island, a triple Olympic champion and 25-time world champion, missed the qualification for the Tokyo Games for the first time in its history.
For Luis Daniel del Risco, the highest representative of the Cuban Baseball Federation, “there is a war” being waged, and “the goal is to destroy Cuban baseball”.
He condemns a “harassment campaign” by foreign recruiters every time they travel outside the team. “These people have access to hotels (where the committee lodges, ed. Note), and many of them go in for the purpose of contacting these young people” by telling them “I have a suggestion for you”.
It also goes through “conversations, Whatsapp messages” or via “their relatives”, enough to prevent players “being focused on the game like other teams who do not have this concern”.
– “Very complicated decision” –
“I have often heard it said that the state of health of baseball reflects the condition of Cuba,” confides Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, a great fanatic of this sport to whom he devoted a book of interviews with players.
And “I think what happened is a representation of what is happening in the country, this migrating rage” also translated in recent months with an increase in “balseros”, these Cubans trying to cross, on boats fortune, Florida Strait. to reach the United States.
“We have to respect the decision of these young people,” said the author, who himself has always dreamed of being a baseball player and supporting the Industriales team in Havana. “It really is a very complicated decision to make, because they give up a lot of things.”
They are leaving “without a passport, confiscated by the delegation,” said Francys Romero, and will be banned from returning to Cuba for eight years.
These players “have not kept their commitment to teammates and to the country,” said Luis Daniel del Risco, but “it is a personal decision for each”.
There is only one solution to this problem, according to him: “to give Cuban baseball players the same opportunities as the others”, because “in order to play abroad, we must give up a delegation and give up being Cuban. not justified “.
A historic agreement was signed at the end of 2018, between the American and Cuban baseball federations, so that Cuban players can be recruited by teams in the North American League (MLB) without having to jump.
But diplomatic tensions between the two countries were deadly for him: the Trump administration canceled it in 2019.
© 2021 AFP