The small plane flying over Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 19 carried a rather significant message: CUBANO EXILIATE. The sign, which also bore a phone number, meant "Cuban, defect," a suggestion for the 881 members of the Cuban delegation that was in Puerto Rico for the 17th Central American and Caribbean Games.
And defect is exactly what many of them did. As of Monday, the day before the 10-day-long Games were to end, Cuba had won more than 300 medals and lost 39 members of its delegation, including gold medalists in weightlifting, gymnastics and softball, as well as assorted officials and journalists. While none of Cuba's high-profile boxers, baseball players or track and field stars defected in Puerto Rico, the number of athletes who did was so large as to stun observers of Cuba's sports machine.
Long held up as proof that Fidel Castro's socialist system worked, Cuba's athletes are now providing persuasive testimony that it isn't working. Said Odalys Hernàndez, who defected shortly after pitching her softball team to a 10-1 victory over Colombia on Nov. 26, "I was looking for a little bit of liberty, which does not exist in Cuba."
The writing has been on the wall, not just in the sky, for some time now. The dissolution of Cuba's chief patron, the Soviet Union, coupled with the longstanding U.S. trade embargo, has left the island's economy bereft. As the lines have grown for such rationed essentials as rice and flour, Castro's ideological hold over his people, especially the younger generation, has loosened. Defections by Cubans, many of them willing to brave the sea and sharks on inner tubes, are at an alltime high.
And now even athletes, a relatively pampered lot, are exhibiting growing unease. Renè Arocha, a second-line pitcher on the Cuban national team, was a pioneer when he defected two years ago in Miami after exhibition games against the U.S. national team; now he is a starter for the St. Louis Cardinals. At last summer's World University Games in Buffalo, two Cuban baseball players followed Arocha's lead and bolted.
The one privilege left for Cuban athletes is travel, which also is the best avenue of escape. With the CAC Games being held in Puerto Rico, many Cubans seized the opportunity. Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, and Cuba are Caribbean island neighbors that share a language, yet there is more to their kinship. Look at their flags (pictured on this page), which differ only in color, not design. The similarity was brought home by a print ad in Puerto Rico for, of all things, a Sony camcorder. On one page is a black-and-white picture of a flag, under which is printed CUBA OR PUERTO RICO? On the next page is the flag in color, and the answer: PUERTO RICO.
Still, the Cuban government was not prepared for the mass exodus. Although security personnel conducted nightly head counts at the Cuban barracks in Salinas, outside Ponce, and mandated that the athletes give 24-hour notice before visiting friends or family on the island, most of the defectors simply walked away. (One of them was the second-in-command of Cuba's security detail for the Games.) Two groups in particular aided their escape: Rescue Legion, which sponsored the airplane, and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. The U.S. was also unprepared for its new guests—the Immigration and Naturalization Service had to fly in an officer to process all the asylum requests.
The story of one defector, gymnast Josè Tejada (who won a gold in the pommel horse), was both typical and heroic. While his fellow gymnasts were celebrating their team gold medal in the gym of a stadium in Caguas on Saturday night, the 28-year-old Tejada got into a car driven by someone from the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. "I had been thinking about leaving Cuba during these Games since last November," he told Gabrielle Paese of the San Juan Star. "But six months ago I got viral hepatitis. I managed to recuperate in two months, but then there were only three months left to train. I did strength exercises to get in shape. It cost me a lot.
"This wasn't something I decided overnight. I'm not a child. My prime motivations were the limitations placed on me and the economic factor and the question of ethics. At the root of these problems is a political problem. I talked it over with my mom and dad, my brothers and cousins, and now that I'm here, I will fight hard to help them."
Tejada, who has no family in the U.S., was asked if he might not feel alone. No, he said, "I have all of you."
Cuba's initial reaction to the defections was silence, and then something akin to good riddance. "This is a regrettable situation," said press chief Manuel Vaillant. "Our feeling is simply that if they didn't love their country, we don't care to dedicate any words to them."
But the Cuban sports apparatus has begun to recognize that the times have changed. Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump, and six other Cuban track and field stars were recently allowed to compete professionally for a Spanish club, although their salaries will be paid to the government. The about-face reflects a desire to placate Cuban athletes as well as the country's need for hard currency. The Mexican news agency Notimex reported that two of Cuba's best baseball players, pitcher Omar Ajete and outfielder Orestes Kindelan, will be allowed to play in Japan next year under a similar arrangement.
The prospect of Cuba's baseball players' performing in Japan has U.S. scouts salivating. Former pitcher Kevin Saucier of the Major League Scouting Bureau, in Puerto Rico to assess the Cuban talent, says, "Six or seven of these guys can play in the big leagues right now."
One of the most-coveted players is third baseman Omar Linares. During the CAC Games he was pictured in the Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día holding a baseball on which were painted the flags of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Athletes from both islands wore T-shirts bearing the slogan DE UN PAJARO, DOS ALAS. It means "from one bird, two wings," a reference to these lines by 19th-century Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tío:
Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of a bird
They receive flowers and bullets in the same heart.
The Central American and Caribbean Games of 1993 will be remembered for the many athletes who rode those wings to freedom.