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Sunday, December 19, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Defecting Athletes Tearing Cuba's Fabric

Washington Post

FOR YEARS, Fidel Castro and many Cubans have found athletics to be a source of national pride. But Cuban athletes, fed up with poor living conditions and hungry for the promise of America, are defecting in increasing numbers. "There is nothing to miss in Cuba but Cubans," says one defector. ------------------------------

Fidel Castro is the only communist who admits having a satellite dish in his back yard. Ted Turner gave it to him, so he could catch major-league baseball when he's not watching his beloved Cuban national team.

Castro is such a sports junkie that when the Pan American Games came to Havana, he went to two or three events per day. His was a perpetual motorcade-in-motion, criss-crossing the city from one venue to another. Every now and then, he even did the Wave.

These days, as his tiny, isolated, island nation writhes in steamy desperation, there is nothing that delights Castro more than watching his athletes compete. He may not have enough fuel to start a tractor engine or enough rice and beans to feed his people, but he sure has a terrific bunch of boxers and baseball players. He loves them, and they love him, or so they say.

In November, Castro sent about 450 of his athletes to Puerto Rico for the Central American and Caribbean Games. As the biggest kid on the block, Cuba could go to the Games, win hundreds of medals and bring them all home for the glory of the motherland.

Which was fine, except for one thing: About 10 percent of the athletes who left for Puerto Rico did not bother to come back.

As many as 50 of Cuba's top-notch athletes defected, requesting asylum in the United States. It was a mass exodus played out over 10 days and encouraged by Cuban exiles.

This has happened before. Anywhere Cuban athletes pop up in North America, Cuban exiles are not far behind. There were banners and newspaper ads at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis. In Puerto Rico someone chartered small planes to fly over the venues with trailing banners that read, "Cubans: Defect!" They even listed a telephone number.

In the past, a Cuban athlete touring the United States might leap a fence and make a run for it every now and then. But never before had such a stunning number taken the exiles up on their offers.

Weightlifter Lino Ocana slipped away from the Cuban delegation, hooked up with the proper authorities and then met with reporters. He talked about his daily menu: bread and a glass of water mixed with sugar for breakfast; rice and beans and a bit of fish for lunch; leftover rice and beans for dinner.

"Cuba is a big jail," Ocana told William Booth of the Washington Post, "no nothing."

Gymnast Tajedo Cortina said he earned 120 Cuban pesos per month. On the Cuban black market, that's about $1.75. When asked if he would miss anything positive about Cuba, he burst out laughing.

"I thought for a moment you were serious," he said. "There is nothing to miss in Cuba but Cubans."

It's hard to know what is more devastating to Castro, the numbers or the words. Losing so many athletes will force him to reconsider sending a team to the next international competition.

Castro can take some solace in the fact that none of his baseball players or boxers left him. Not this time, anyway.

But he lost two weightlifters who each finished sixth in their class at the 1992 Summer Olympics, as well as an assortment of fine young athletes from other sports.

Ironically, their international athletic careers probably ended the moment they defected. Barring a dramatic shift in U.S. citizenship procedures, which usually require a waiting period of at least five years, the defectors will not be able to compete in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, and they will probably be too old by the 2000 Olympics.

This is not the case for the baseball players. The majors beckon, and the Cubans are beginning to hear their siren song. Rene Arocha, a starting pitcher for the national team, defected in Miami in 1991 after a series of exhibition games against the U.S. team. He now is a starter for the St. Louis Cardinals.

"In Cuba they all know about Arocha's success," said Richard Case, USA Baseball executive director. "Word has gotten around that there is an end of the rainbow for these guys."

Two more Cuban baseball players fled during the World University Games in Buffalo last summer. This was quite a blow to Castro. For years, his athletes have known what's out there but have professed no need for any of it. How many times did Teofilo Stevenson, the great super heavyweight boxer, turn down million-dollar offers to box in the U.S.?

Now, finally, they've stopped saying no. They're tugging at the fabric that makes up Castro's Cuba, and it's beginning to tear. Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump, was recently allowed to sign with a professional track and field club in Spain, although his earnings apparently will go to the government. Three years ago he was hauling bricks and bags of cement for free to help build the main stadium for the 1991 Pan Am Games.

The Cubans built 21 new sports facilities for those Games while people waited in line for hours to get a bag of flour. From someone's point of view, the sacrifice was worthwhile. They had sports stars to showcase, wonderful young men and women from their island who could play and win and make them feel proud.

What else did they have to show off, except for their athletes? But when they are gone, what then?

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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