Less than 150 nautical miles from Cuba is the stadium of the Florida Marlins, Miami’s baseball team in the United States’ top division, Major League Baseball (MLB). It is possible that more young Cubans dream of playing there than young people from Florida. Unlike in the United States, baseball is the undisputed national sport of Cuba. Thus, the island has already produced several illustrious MLB players. Currently, two Cubans are considered candidates for the league’s best rookie title.
Now twelve other “peloteros” are on their way to the United States to continue their careers there. You left the team and resigned during the U23 World Cup in Mexico. They “deserted,” as the Havana regime calls it.
National sport in crisis
Indeed, the people of Havana had hoped that the U23 national team could forget the debacle in Olympic qualification: for the first time since the sport became an Olympic sport in Barcelona in 1992, Cuba had missed the Tokyo Games. The Caribs had previously won three golds and two silvers in five Olympic baseball tournaments.
But even before the first game at the U23 World Cup in Mexico, three 18-22-year-old players disappeared from the team hotel. And already at the beginning against Mexico, it was the first defeat.
Shame on Havana
Havana accuses the refugees of “moral and ethical weakness”. After the first players had left, the supervisors apparently intended to guard their players more closely: according to media reports, they were forbidden to leave the hotel unsupervised or speak to outsiders of the delegation. Still, a total of 12 talents escaped in two weeks. The last one escaped on Sunday just before leaving for Havana.
César Prieto escaped in Florida in May, ready for a movie: he ran from the team bus to a waiting car across the street.
After all, the Destroyed Cubans had entered the game in third place, but were beaten there by Colombia. For Cuban baseball, worse than the disappointment in the youth tournament is the dwindling talent and its signaling effect. It is another shame for the administration in Havana. Already in May, at the Florida Olympic qualifying tournament, the player and the team’s psychologist had left.
On the Cuban baseball players’ flight
It is not new for Cuban baseball players to leave the island to pursue careers elsewhere, especially in the United States. The island’s sports had long maintained a high level, even though the Castro regime banned the Cuban professional league in 1961. It was only when Cuba became further impoverished after the collapse of the Soviet Union that foreign baseball players became more attractive and Cuban baseball began to dry up.
Barack Obama (right) and Raúl Castro (left) at a baseball game: The short tau policy is over again
The solution came only in 2015: the Cuban administration and MLB agreed on the possibility of Cubans playing in the professional league. “Without systematic emigration, Cuba would not have been interested in this agreement,” says Francys Romero. The Cuban journalist lives in Florida, reports for US national media and is the author of The Dream and Reality: Tales of Cuban Baseball Emigration. “For Cuba, the deal was a way out. Unfortunately for both sides, President Donald Trump vetoed the deal in 2018,” Romero wrote when asked by DW. The Biden administration also has no plans to lift the ban.
“A Question of Survival”
After that, the escape started again. But never before have so many players turned their backs on the country at once as now in Mexico. Many commentators see the reason for the growing supply crisis on the Caribbean island: Even before the COVID 19 pandemic, the government had started rationing food. Then tourism, one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange, dried up. The government responds to the protests with repression.
“For many players, it’s more a matter of survival than a choice of sport,” Romero said. The million-dollar contracts that the Major League attracts are far from lying on the street: “Your chances aren’t very good.”
Journey into the unknown
Of the 12 players who escaped, baseball expert Romero believes that maybe five or six have serious hopes of playing in the big leagues: “The others will probably end up in a different way, possibly in a completely different job.”
They cannot return to Cuba for the time being. Anyone “deserted” will be banned from their home country for at least eight years. Castrists rarely allow families to leave the country. Because of this and the uncertainty, at least half of the U23 team decided not to run. But who knows, Romero says, maybe some of them just think their moment hasn’t come yet.