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Cuban athletes face hard questions

Defections continue despite normalizing relations

Stephen Wade Associated Press

TORONTO – The manager of Cuba’s baseball team at the Pan Am Games wanted nothing to do with questions about defections to the United States.

Cuba has acknowledged that two players defected during warm-up games two weeks ago in the United States, and last week four rowers at the Pan Am Games in Canada left the team and crossed the American border.

Cuban athletes have a history of defecting, and that hasn’t changed even as the United States and Cuba open embassies today in the other’s country, ending more than 50 years of separation.

“I’m not interested in talking about this,” said Roger Machado, manager of Cuba’s baseball team. “Talk to me about baseball.”

Roberto Ramirez, Cuba’s media representative at the games, declined comment about the rowers.

“We’re not speaking in regard to this,” he told The Associated Press on Sunday. “This is a right that we have.”

Many Cuban athletes at the games declined to talk on the record, and those who did defended the government and criticized those leaving.

Cubans living in Canada and attending Pan Am events spoke more openly, acknowledging the pull of big money. But some declined to speak, showing hostility at being asked about an act that some regard as treason.

At a Gold Cup soccer game on Saturday against the United States in Baltimore, Cuba listed five players as absent and gave no reason.

“They’ve chosen their path,” Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez said, without giving details.

Mijain Lopez, the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in greco-roman wrestling, was reported almost five years ago to have defected to the United States. It’s a rumor he denied at the time, and again this week.

“I never thought of leaving Cuba,” he told The Associated Press at the Pan Am Games. “I love my people, my country. Those guys (that defected) have betrayed our revolution. I hope they’re happy. They have left something beautiful behind, which is socialism and our country’s dignity. Let them do what they can in other countries. We will continue doing what we can for the revolution.”

A fellow Cuban gold-medal wrestler at the Pan Am Games used a similar tone.

“I don’t stick my nose in politics,” said Reineris Salas, after defeating American Jake Herbert for gold in freesytle in the 86-kilogram class. “All I know is I won gold and dedicate it to my family, to Fidel Castro and all of Cuba.”

Cuba-born Rafael Borrell attended a Cuba vs. United States baseball game at the games. He wore a white Cuba baseball jersey with No. 10 on the back, and a red cap with “Cuba” written in script above the bill.

Borrell immigrated to Canada 20 years ago and works as a carpenter.

“Maybe in two or three years it won’t matter,” he said. “People can go back and forth like in any other place so then they won’t have to be killed by sharks going to Florida.”

Borrell said many Cubans were unaware of defections, since the government doesn’t publicize them, and some people are too busy to care.

“In a couple of years, maybe these baseball players can sign a contract to play with the Yankees and come back (to Cuba) and just be normal – like in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. They can go back and forth like human beings.”

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