Monday, October 13, 2008

Cuban defections II

It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to find apologists for the Cuban regime here in the U.S. People casually brush aside the lack of political rights and the poor standard of living with retorts about how Cubans enjoy free health care and high literacy levels. Any acknowledgment of Cuban shortcomings is inevitably coupled with blame on the U.S. embargo (which, to be fair, we should all concede is a failed and inhumane policy).

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Cuba, however, is the willingness of so many of its people to risk their lives on the high seas to get to Florida, along with the periodic defection of its athletes. In soccer alone, which I follow near religiously, a total of 15 players have defected since 2002, with two of those defections occurring last week here in the DC area.

These defections are so damning because it completely belies the narrative of Cuba as a compassionate society. Read the story told by one of these defectors:
Reinier Alcantara did not believe he would have another opportunity to pursue freedom, so on Thursday night, as he and his Cuban soccer teammates were preparing for a team dinner at the Crystal City Doubletree Hotel, the 26-year-old forward made his break.

Sharing details in a telephone interview with The Washington Post last night, Alcantara said he was in the lobby, wearing a casual shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, when he saw the coaches wander into the gift shop. He rode the escalator down to street level and "started running like crazy and didn't look behind," he said through an interpreter who arranged the interview and requested anonymity for political reasons.

After sprinting for about eight blocks, Alcantara said he flagged down a taxi and, with the few words of English he knew, told the driver, "Go, go, go!"

About a half-hour later, unaware of where he was, Alcantara said he got out at a McDonald's, paid the driver with dollars he put aside, and called a Cuban friend who lived several hours north of Washington. While he awaited his friend's arrival, he found a cheap hotel and attempted to sleep, all the while worried he would be discovered by Cuban officials.

..."I felt I let the team down, but it is a decision I had to make for my future. I want to be free. It was my decision to make, to leave my family and my country, not knowing when I could go back. But I needed to be free for myself, for my life, to choose my future."

Alcantara described poor treatment of soccer players: bad food that was rationed, terrible field conditions and a lack of equipment, cleats and uniforms. Because there are technically no professional athletes in Cuba, Alcantara said his occupation was officially maintenance worker at a sports complex, a job he never performed.

Before departing Cuba late last week, he did not tell his parents of his plans and never discussed it with his teammates because "no one on the team trusts anyone," he said. At least one member of Cuba's traveling delegation, he claimed, is a government spy.

After Thursday's training session in Washington, the team returned to the hotel and the players reported to their rooms. The telephones had been removed by Cuban officials, a standard practice to discourage players from communicating with outsiders on foreign trips.

He showered, then sought out a team official for permission to lounge in the lobby. Once there, he waited until he was out of view of the coaches and "realized it was my only opportunity. I ran and ran and then told the taxi driver to 'Drive me far away,' " he said. "I was so nervous. I didn't know where we were going, but I knew I was in a free country and everything would be okay."
Bad food. Spies. Lack of trust. Lack of freedom. Stop the apologies, there is no excuse.

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