Cuban Athletes Keep Defecting Despite "Normalized" Relations

Posted: Jul 24, 2015 2:40 PM

Four members of Cuba's national soccer team have defected from Cuba to the United States in the past week during the Gold Cup tournament. This is in addition to four members of Cuba's rowing team and two from the baseball team defecting to the United States during the Pan-American Games in Toronto.

Athletes from communist countries defecting to the United States or other western countries is hardly an unheard of or recent phenomenon--ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union to Canada in 1974 while on tour with the Kirov Ballet, and Marta Karolyi, the current National Team Coordinator of USA Gymnastics, defected from Romania to the U.S. in 1981, for instance--but it's unusual that these defections are occurring in spite of the warming relations between Cuba and the United States.

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.

It's interesting that the wave of defections is continuing despite assurances that relations between the U.S. and Cuba would be "normalized." Heck, the Cuban embassy just opened in Washington earlier this week. Yet, still, athletes are willing to risk everything and leave their families and entire livelihoods behind for a chance to escape Cuba.