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Cuban Athletes' Closing Window for Defection

By Brendan Krisel

On Sunday, July 26, eight players — constituting half of the Cuban men’s field hockey team — abandoned their country along with their teammates by defecting during the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. Two weeks ago, just a few days after the competition began on July 10, four rowers defected from the Cuban national team and crossed into the U.S. That same week, a second member of the Cuban soccer team defected while the team competed in the U.S. during the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football Gold Cup.

These defections are just the latest in a trend among Cuban athletes attending competitions outside their home country. In 2012, three Cuban soccer players defected before a World Cup qualifying match in Canada, as did eight members of the Cuban team defected during the Pan American Games in 1999. This is not to mention the numerous Cuban defectors who play at all levels of professional baseball in the U.S.

Cuban defections during international sporting events are so prevalent because the competitions themselves are sometimes the only chances many of these athletes get to legally leave the country. According to Joe Kehoskie, a former sports agent who specialized in the Latin American market, the chances that competitors in amateur sports like rowing, cycling, or gymnastics will be able to play professionally in the U.S. for lucrative contracts are hardly motivating. Unlike baseball players, nobody is going to send a speedboat to Cuba to help these athletes get off the island. “[F]or those athletes, an event like this is the best, and in some cases only, opportunity to get out of Cuba and pursue a life outside of the island,” Kehoskie said.

Yet thanks to the simple opportunity to leave the strict confines of the island nation, the defections have become all but routine. “Going back decades now, every time there is one of these events Cuba loses a bunch of people, so it was not surprising at all to hear some rowers defected, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t additional defections by the time the event is over,” said Kehoskie. He went on to explain how the defection of the rowers is only garnering substantial media attention in part because they defected before their scheduled competition. Most athletes will compete, and then defect afterward, to little fanfare.

Robert Boland, a sports business professor at Ohio University and sports historian, said that, in Cuba, many world-class athletes live a life similar to ordinary citizens, a stark contrast to the money, fame, and influence often associated with American pro athletes. But it was not always this way. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, communist countries used excellence in athletics as a public reinforcement of the superiority of their system, Boland said. As a result, if athletes proved themselves on the world stage, the state took care of them.

During the heyday of Soviet-backed Cuban athletics, that meant living in a beautiful new house, driving a fancy car, and living a significantly better life than the average citizen. But with the economic woes facing Cuba today, the island nation no longer has the means to support its athletes so lavishly, or even provide them adequate training facilities. Cuba is also not the sports power in 2015 that it was in 1985, when the island enjoyed reliable financial support from Moscow. Along with the inability to reward athletes who stay loyal to Cuba, officials can no longer send a heightened security detail with their national teams. During the Cold War, such details kept Soviet, East German, and Cuban teammates from mingling with other athletes as well as under constant surveillance, Boland said.

Another reason that Cuban athletes are now defecting is the re-establishment of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The Gold Cup and Pan-Am defections occurred the very week before the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies in each other’s capitals. Conventional wisdom may assume that these negotiations may stymie the flow of athletes from Cuba, but, in fact, the opposite is true.

Many Cuban athletes are afraid that the ‘wet-foot, dry-foot,’ provision of the Cuban Adjustment Act will be repealed, and thus the special treatment given to Cuban asylum seekers will disappear. In turn, if normalizing diplomatic relations is successful between the two former adversaries, Cubans may have to go through the same arduous immigration procedures currently in place in the U.S. for immigrants from most other countries. In short, the window of opportunity for athletic defections is closing. “Rather than being truly politically motivated defectors, they’re trying to beat the rush that could hold them back for several years when relations become more normal,” Boland said.

Unlike Cuban refugees who must attempt to cross the Florida Straits in makeshift rafts, athletes are brought out of Cuba by the government. All they need do to defect is walk away from their teammates and coaches. Yet while athletes carry significantly less risk in their method of defection, they are still making sacrifices. They may never return to Cuba, and must worry constantly about retaliation from the government against their friends and family for embarrassing the state, said Boland.

The solution to these problems seems obvious — a repeal of ‘wet-foot, dry-foot,’ would make defecting significantly harder, and the ability to move freely between nations would make defection unnecessary. However, the possibility looms that these defections will stand in the way of the diplomatic process necessary to make such changes.

“What impact does [defection] potentially have as [the U.S. and Cuba] move ahead,” asked Bolan. “Will this be a challenge in the relationship or will it be just a bump along the way?”

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Brendan Krisel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Garry Knight]

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