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Nearly Half Of Cuba’s Baseball Team Defects To Mexico During the Recent U-23 World Cup Tournament

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Up there with cigars, Cuba may be most well known for its excellence in baseball. But since Castro took power in 1959, the island hasn’t integrated into the MLB like rivals Venezuela or the Dominican Republic have. That’s mostly due to a policy of MLB isolation on Cuba’s part.

Recently, nearly a dozen Cuban baseball players defected from the island while they were playing the U-23 world cup tournament in Mexico.

The mass exodus of 11 players came as a shock to the Cuban government, who publicly decried the defectors as traitors. The Cuban government called the defections “vile abandonments.” The government also accused the players of having “weak morals and ethics.” In the same statement, Cuba applauded the members of the formerly 24-person team who returned.

“We are proud of the attitude that you kept up,” said Raúl Fornés, VP of the National Sports Institute, to the remaining players according to ESPN Deportes. He continued: “Despite the difficulties they faced, the many pressures and the dirty game they were in, they knew how to raise the flag and fight with determination.”

In practice, Cuba only allows players whom they perceive to be the most loyal to travel abroad for tournaments. Even then, the players are accompanied by government escorts in an effort to keep them from defecting.

Due to the strained relationship between Cuba and the U.S., Cuban baseball players aren’t able to be hired to major league teams in any conventional way. In 2018, Cuba brokered an agreement with the MLB to “normalize” sports relations, but the agreement was derailed by the Trump administration, who had a zero-tolerance policy with the communist country.

When Cuban players travel abroad, scouts from other countries usually try to entice them to sign with foreign teams. It should be noted that the 11 players who defected were young—all of the players were under 23. While AP reports that the players defected to Mexico, it is unknown whether the players will be playing for Mexico or will be recruited to other countries’ teams. The AP is also reporting that 8 players defected while CNN and ESPN are saying that 11 players defected.

Losing so many baseball players is a very public embarrassment to Cuba, who has already been facing increased international scrutiny due to the mass protests earlier this year.

Already, in May, infielder César Prieto defected from Cuba’s baseball team while in Florida for the Olympic qualifying tournament. This month’s mass abandonment signals an even bigger shift away from loyalty to their country among Cuban baseball players.

Yale professor Roberto González Echevarría, author of “Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” spoke to USA Today about the mass defection of Cuban baseball players, explaining that professional athletes long for freedom as much as everyday civilians do.

“I hate the word ‘defect’ because it makes Cuba (sound) like an army,” González Echevarría said. “What has to be taken into account is that all of these players, including the ones doing well in the major leagues, are looking for freedom…They want freedom just like those Cubans who are going through the frontier in Mexico or the many others who are risking their lives in boats.”

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