Cuba's athletes keep defecting, despite a new era in US-Cuba relations

The World
Cuban midfielder Ariel Martinez playing against Guatemala in the 2015 Gold Cup

President Barack Obama's overtures to Cuba really kicked into high gear recently with the official re-opening of embassies in Havana and Washington.

But re-establishing diplomatic relations after more than half a century isn't a cure-all. Washington and Havana are still divided on many fronts, such as the ongoing US embargo, Cuba's poor treatment of dissidents on the island and the prison at Guantanamo Bay, though White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday the administration was close to a deal for shuttering the prison.

And here's one more thing that hasn't changed: Cuban athletes are defecting whenever they can.

Just in the past few weeks, several Cuban athletes have left their teams in the middle of competitions. Two baseball players and four rowers who were part of the Cuban delegation to the Pan American Games in Canada bolted.

And here in the US, Cuba’s national soccer team started losing members almost as soon as it arrived to take part in the Gold Cup tournament.

The team started with 23 players. They finished with 19 — one more than the minimum allowed by tournament rules — after four players defected one by one.

The unscheduled departures put added pressure on the team, as it struggled in early action. Cuba lost 6-0 to Mexico, followed by a 2-0 loss to Trinidad.

By the time of a decisive game against Guatemala, three players were no longer there.

Somehow, the Cubans rallied to beat Guatemala 1-0, which was enough to qualify the team for a quarterfinal match against the US.

At the end of the Guatemala game, the best player on the Cuban team, midfielder Ariel Martinez, started crying in the middle of the field. Then he defected as well.

“At the end of the game, I felt really nostalgic leaving my teammates behind, they’re like brothers to me,” Martinez later told Univision.  “And I cried like a child because I’m leaving a lot behind in Cuba. My mom, my grandmother, my brothers. But I have a dream, and I want to make it come true. I don’t know how it’s going to go, but my new career playing soccer in the US starts today.”

Cuba’s coach Raul Gonzalez tried to minimize the blow to the team.

“Look, everyone can see what’s happened here,” he said at a press conference. “I’m not going to dwell on it. It is what it is, just as you can see for yourself.  This is a sporting event, it’s not supposed to be political.”

But the pressure on the team continued to mount ahead of the quarterfinal clash with the United States. The Americans crushed Cuba with a decisive 6-0 victory, eliminating the Cubans from the tournament.

Later, US coach Jurgen Klinsmann congratulated the Cuban squad for getting as far as it did, given the circumstances.

“They deserved to be in that quarterfinal,” Klinsmann told reporters. “They did a tremendous job. What the coaching staff is going through on that team is unthinkable for us. So again, huge compliments to them for what they achieved.”

Cuban athletes are still tempted to defect because the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” US policy is still in effect. The rule stipulates that a Cuban who sets foot on US soil is allowed to stay, while Cubans intercepted at sea are sent back right away.

Cuba has tried to stop defections by allowing some athletes to play abroad on special contracts. But those deals also give the Cuban government a cut on the athlete’s earnings. You can see why that’s not popular with players.

So despite the new era in US-Cuba relations, I’m betting Cuban sports stars will keep defecting for some time to come.

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