Are Those Painful Years Returning?

Liván Hernández and his brother Orlando ’El Duque’ Hernández.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ernesto Santana, Havana, 15 April 2019 — The documentary Brothers in Exile rings true these days in a way that we might find regrettable, because it presents the 1990s, the so-called Special Period in Cuba, along with the desire to play in the best baseball in the world, which led many Cuban players to escape from the country in any way they could.

The first to open the door to the Major Leagues at the beginning of the decade was René Arocha, but then there was the spectacular case of the two brothers, both pitchers, Orlando and Liván Hernández. Their story shocked fans and was picked up in this 2014 film, co-produced by ESPN Films and MLB Productions, directed by the Puerto Rican Mario Díaz.

It is a kind of fairy tale that does not seem to be taken from real life: two exceptional athletes who overcome the most hostile circumstances and end up rewarded with glory and fortune. But this beautiful fable was made possible by that trafficking of athletes that the recently canceled agreement between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Cuban Baseball Federation aimed to eradicate.

Liván Hernández dreamed since he was 13 years old of playing in the Major Leagues in the United States, but only the hardships and humiliations of the time drove him to leave the Cuban team when it played in Mexico. Joe Cubas, the famous sports agent, was the architect of the process that ended in a young Livan signing a contract with the Florida Marlins in February 1996.

His brother, ten years older, the most valuable pitcher in the country in those days and one of the most brilliant in the history of Cuban baseball, Orlando El Duque Hernández, was expelled from the sport and even banned from entering the stadiums. The police harassed him at his home and mocked him: “You’re nobody anymore.” El Duque devoted himself to playing street ball, wearing the Yankees shirt that someone had given him.

Meanwhile, after an uncertain start, Livan had a dazzling year in 1997, won the World Series with the Marlins and was named that year’s MVP. El Duque, who followed his success from the purgatory to which he had been condemned by Cuban sports authorities, decided he would also leave Cuba at Christmas that year.

It was a dangerous adventure that turned out well, thanks to chance and to the skills of Joe Cubas. “If I had to do it again, I would not do it, what I experienced was more than enough,” confesses El Duque in the documentary. The rest is legend. From 1998 he was a three-time consecutive champion in the World Series with the New York Yankees. In 2005, he was crowned again playing for the Chicago White Sox.

Joe Cubas had glimpsed a promise of fortune when he saw Arocha’s contract with the Major Leagues. His masterful move was to take the players to a third country to be considered free agents. His parents had fled the Revolution and now he, as an agent, was pleased with an activity that displeased Fidel Castro, and one that, above all, earned him a lot of money.

Unfortunately, the ’escape’ from a third country to the United States was the mandatory path for many players who have pursued the dream of playing in the best baseball on the planet and being free citizens. But this documentary does not exalt that tricky road, quite the opposite. “As a Latino filmmaker, I hope that the Brothers in Exile will have a human impact, cutting through the paralysis that has characterized relations between the United States and Cuba for decades,” said the director.

Today, the Cuban official press attacks the “unjustifiable” political intentions with which Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and John Bolton have frustrated the agreement [between Cuba and the United States to allow Cuban players to play in the US without ’defecting’], but never alludes to the role played by sports and political authorities in the situation that leads to our players choosing such a dangerous path to escape from the power of the Cuban authorities and fulfill their dreams.

Now, the new president of Cuba’s National Institute of Sports (Inder), Osvaldo Vento, has announced loudly: “We are going to fill the country with the equipment and ballparks for the practice of baseball and, if specialists are missing, we will look for volunteer activists.” But, even with equipment, ballparks and coaches, not much will be achieved, considering the new great crisis into which the country is now entering.

“Attacks with political motivation against the agreement harmed the athletes, their families and the fans,” says the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB). But many believe these authorities have the opportunity to demonstrate, at this moment, the moral superiority they brag of. They should simply renounce the profits and pave the way for each player to play independently for the Major Leagues.

Some formula must be found so that, leaving the Government out of the equation, the agreement can go forward, because without it there looms a new era of despair and uncontrollable diaspora for Cuban baseball, today, and the painful years that resulted in the story told in Brothers in Exile could be repeated today.


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