Cuba has become accustomed to the cream of its sporting talent defecting to the US and now it is considering the once unthinkable: the free market.
Cuba has always had a problem keeping its prodigious sports and cultural talent on the island, not to mention its doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
Appeals to patriotism have proved only partially effective, so a new solution is being considered to combat the problem. As Cuban President Raul Castro’s government embarks on a wide-ranging initiative to let more people work for themselves instead of the state, there are increasing calls for the same to apply in sports.
Cuba must find a way to “stop the robbery of players,” baseball great Victor Mesa said in comments reported by state media.
While hundreds of thousands of Cubans are suddenly going into business for themselves, he said, it is unfortunate “there is no proposal to contract athletes to play abroad.”
Mesa, who manages Matanzas in the Cuban National Series, said he favors letting Cubans play for pay in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Japan, South Korea or Mexico after eight seasons at home. He did not mention Major League Baseball.
His comments reflected the chatter among Cuban athletes, coaches and fans, but it was significant that they were even published. In the past, sports people have gotten into trouble for disputing the official line and talk of defectors was discouraged.
Now, Mesa is not alone in airing his views.
“Times change ... There are Cuban players who have wanted to test their luck,” Rey Vicente Anglada, former manager of Industriales and Cuba, told Prensa Latina news agency. “They see themselves as having possibilities and see others who have done well. I don’t see how that can stop.”
Delegates at April’s Communist Party summit on economic reforms approved the general idea of “a reference to athletes being hired abroad,” according to an official report on the debate, although the idea remains under discussion.
There is precedent: In 1999, the Cuban Sports Institute allowed a few volleyball and baseball players to work abroad, especially at the end of their careers, at salaries negotiated by officials. However, that opening was shut in 2005.
Most Cuban sports players get monthly government salaries of US$16. Olympic medalists receive an additional lifetime monthly stipend: US$300 for gold medal winners and less for other medalists.
The government pays for entertainment, education, health, travel, housing and cars.
It’s another world from that of hard-throwing pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who left the island and signed a five-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds for US$30 million.
Defections drew rare mention recently in state newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde, which detailed the “abandonment” by the pitcher and reigning league rookie of the year Gerardo Concepcion during a tournament in the Netherlands. After his departure, the national team lost the final to Taiwan.
The papers also reported that captain Roberlandy Simon and players Joandry Leal and Raydel Hierrezuelo had quit the national volleyball team that was the runner-up at last year’s world championship in Italy. The reports said they left the team for personal reasons, but their absence sparked rumors they wanted to defect. Hierrezuelo has since returned to the squad.
Six volleyball players defected from the national team in 2001 during a tournament in Belgium, the beginning of an exodus of many others.