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Why Cuban baseball players fled their country

October 6, 2021

Half of Cuba's 24-member national team used this year's Under-23 Baseball World Cup in Mexico as a chance to flee the country's communist regime. They want to play professionally in the US, but not all of them will.

Cuban baseball player César Prieto
Cuban baseball player César Prieto defected in MayImage: Ramon Espinosa/AP/picture alliance

The Florida Marlins baseball stadium in Miami is located a mere 150 nautical miles (278 kilometers) from Cuba. Many young Cubans dream about playing for teams in the US top division, Major League Baseball (MLB).

Baseball, after all, is Cuba's number one national sport. A number of leading MLB players in the US today grew up playing the sport on the Caribbean island. Two Cubans are currently hot contenders for the league's rookie of the year honor.

Reports vary, but at least 11 players are thought to have abandoned Cuba's baseball team while in Mexico for the Under-23 World Cup last month — and are now bound for the United States. Havana lambasted the players, saying they had deserted the country. One of the first to leave the team last week, the Santiago native Luia Mejias, has already entered the US, according to press reports.

Cuban national sport

The Cubans have a long list of Olympic accolades in baseball, including three gold and two silver medals in the past five Olympic baseball competitions. But Cuba failed to qualify for this year's Olympic Games in Tokyo, marking the first time the proud baseball nation missed out on the Games since the sport became an Olympic discipline in 1992. 

Any hopes Havana may have had of salvaging its reputation were dashed when three players from the under-23 squad vanished from the team hotel before the first game. To add insult to injury, Cuba then lost its first match to hosts Mexico.

PR fiasco

Havana said the players who deserted the team suffer from "moral and ethical weaknesses." Coaches and team assistants made an effort to keep a closer eye on the remaining squad and, according to media reports, banned them from leaving the hotel unsupervised and meeting outsiders.

Despite these added security measures, however, more players escaped. The last player snuck off on Sunday, just as the team was preparing to fly back home. For Havana, the tournament has been a public relations fiasco.

César Prieto escaped by running across a street and jumping into a getaway car
Baseball player Cesar Prieto escaped the Cuban delegation this summer by running across a street and jumping into a getaway carImage: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

But this is not the first time Cuban baseball players have fled. In May, while participating an Olympic qualifying event in Florida, three players and a team psychologist fled the Cuban delegation .

Exodus of players

The level of baseball played in Cuba has been exceptional, even after the Castro regime banned the professional league in 1961. Even so, Cuba saw a steady exodus of baseball players seeking to advance their careers abroad. Many have headed for the US. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has seen its financial woes increase, and more baseball players turned their back on the island to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

In 2015, Havana and the MLB reached deal whereby Cuban athletes would be permitted to play in the US top flight baseball league. "Cuba would never have endorsed such an agreement without the ongoing exodus [of Cuban players]," says Francys Romero. The Cuban journalist, who lives in Florida and works for US media outlets, is an expert on the baseball player diaspora. Romero, who wrote the book The dream and reality: Stories of the emigration of baseball, says the 2015 deal ended the exodus from Cuba. The Trump administration, however, rescinded the deal and the current Biden government has made no efforts to revive it.

A matter of survival

Droves of Cuban athletics began leaving the island once more. The disappearance of around a dozen baseball players at once while away in Mexico, however, marks a new, all-time low. Observers believe Cuba's persistent domestic problems are to blame. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Havana began rationing food stuff. When tourists ceased visiting, Cubans lost a key source of income. And anti-government protests have been suppressed.

Former Cuban President Raul Castro and his counterpart US President Obama attend a baseball game in Havana
Brief thaw in relations: Former Cuban President Raul Castro and his counterpart US President Obama attend a baseball game in HavanaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Ernesto

For many players, leaving Cuba is more about survival than advancing their professional careers, says Romero. Only few can hope to secure MLB contracts worth several million dollars, according to the sports journalist. "Their chances are not very good."

Against the odds

Out of the players who have fled, only a handful will make it in the major US league, says Romero. "The others will have to find other ways to make a living, possibly by switching careers."

Returning to Cuba is out of the question. Anyone who has "deserted" the country is banned from entering Cuba for at least eight years. And family members who have been left behind are rarely permitted to join their loved ones abroad.

The latest runaways clearly think their lives will be better outside of Cuba. They may still hope that their big breakthrough is yet to come.

This article was originally written in German

DW-Redakteur Jan D. Walter Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Jan D. Walter Editor and reporter for national and international politics and member of DW's fact-checking team.