Dimas Castellano, Havana, 31 May 2021 — César Prieto, second baseman for the Cienfuegos Elefantes and member of the Cuba team at the Americas Pre-Olympic Tournament, escaped on May 26 as soon as the delegation arrived in Florida. The frequency of this occurrence, although not considered newsworthy, becomes of analysis.
Why do Cuban baseball players, who before 1959 never used to flee their country, do so now? Why don’t players from other countries do so? The answer lies in history. Let us go there:
In Havana, between 1939 and 1943, five Amateur World Series were held, of which the Cubans won four. In the 1940s, the Cuban League was founded with the Havana, Almendares, Cienfuegos, and Marianao teams, and the Gran Estadio del Cerro [the Grand Stadium of El Cerro, today known as the Latin American Stadium] became the headquarters of Cuban baseball.
In 1949 the Caribbean Series, which opened in Havana, won seven of the 12 editions in which it participated — the last five in a row. Since 1954 the Cuban Sugar Kings (a Minor League team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, based in Havana, that played at the Triple-A level from 1954 to 1960) played half the time in the Cerro stadium and the other half overseas.
In 1960, Cuba had 98 players in the Major Leagues and 68 were candidates for the Hall of Fame. The Cuban League was the main circuit in Latin America and second in the world. These and many other achievements turned baseball into a passion in Cuba.
Although the General Directorate of Sports was created in the 1940s, amateur and professional baseball was managed by private companies and civil institutions. Starting in February 1961, with the creation of the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER), the rules of the game changed. Professional sports were banned, North American baseball broadcasts were suspended, and anyone who tried to participate in “slave” baseball was branded a traitor.
Baseball was nothing but a particular case of the absorption of everything and everyone by the State, which assumed all expenses in exchange for absolute control and fidelity. Athletes turned into “gladiators” were sent to represent the State in international competitions.
The sport’s subordination to non-sports-related factors is illustrated by the discourse of the Leader of the Revolution:
1- “Someday when the yanquis decide to coexist with our country, we will beat them also in baseball, and then the advantage of revolutionary sport over exploited sport will be proven” (January 1962).
2- “Professional sport was eradicated, and above all, it was eradicated in that sport, which was one of the most popular: baseball” (January 1967).
3- “The essence of the success of our sport is the disappearance of professionalism” (March 1970), and:
4- “If in other countries of Latin America there is no social revolution… no matter how much technique [they use]; no matter how many coaches they hire; no matter how many things they come up with, they will not be able to obtain the successes that Cuba obtains in the sport.” (October 1975).
Given the INDER’s prohibitions, many of the Cubans who participated in the Major Leagues settled in the United States. In 1980 a group of them left the country through the port of Mariel, including Bárbaro Garvey, the first Cuban from the National Series who played, in 1984, with the Detroit Tigers.
He was followed by others such as pitcher Edilberto Oropesa and shortstop Rey Ordoñez. In 1991 René Arocha, pitcher for the Industriales, was the first to leave an official delegation. After him, Euclides Rojas — a reliever from the same team, who escaped with his family by sea in a homemade boat during the Maleconazo stampede in 1994 — did the same.
The permanence of the getaway, and the ineffectiveness of repressive measures to stop it, indicate the existence of a deep cause, whose common denominator is the inability of the athletes to realize their dreams in Cuba. Some like Orestes Miñoso — a glory of baseball for all time — died without ever returning to their homeland. Others, as Euclides Rojas declared, did not leave to play ball, but to seek freedom.
With the rise of the totalitarian system began the decline of Cuban baseball. Our supremacy was established in the Central American, Pan American, and world amateur competitions — what was prematurely described as the victory of the “free baseball” over “the slave baseball.”
Without its own economy, this supremacy was achieved thanks to Soviet subsidies. At the Munich Olympics (1972), the year in which Cuba entered the Council for Economic Aid (CAME), the Cuban team ranked fourteenth in the medal count. In Barcelona (1992), it rose to fifth place. However, in Rio de Janeiro (2016), Cuba dropped to eighteenth place — four below where it had been in 1972.
Another demonstration of decline was at the World Baseball Classic. In the first version (2006), Cuba ranked second. In the second version (2009), it went to fifth place. In the third version (2013), the Cuban mentor assured that the team would win, but they couldn’t get beyond the fifth position. The final reckoning came with the sweep they suffered in 2013 at the hands of North American university students, whom Cuba had previously defeated in eight out of ten playoffs.
Finally, after 53 years of absence from the Caribbean Series, Cuba rejoined in the 56th edition (2014), played on Margarita Island, Venezuela, where it ranked last.
The results leave no doubt: the controversy between “free” and “slave” baseball was decided in favor of the latter.
The official explanation that the “blockade” imposed by the United States is the cause of the disaster and that Cuban baseball players cannot take part in the competitive circuits of that country hides the fact that the conflict began with Cuba’s decision to ban professional baseball and to classify disobedient players as traitors. Such a hackneyed argument is used to try to sustain the unsustainable.
In March 2017, the Cuban national baseball director, Yosvani Aragón, declared that “there will be no unified team until the United States eliminates the embargo rules that affect baseball players — and certifies that there will be no concessions that involve opening doors to those who have disavowed their country or abandoned delegations that were counting on their efforts.”
However, nothing is said about the responsibility borne by Cuban totalitarianism, much less about correcting this error, and even less about restoring freedom to baseball and Cuban baseball players.
Meanwhile, as happens with the economy, there is an insistence on getting out of the stagnation using slogans and speeches. On May 20, six days before César Prieto’s escape, the president of Cuba appeared at training to repeat the well-known harangues to the “gladiators” of the team.
Upon learning of César’s departure, the official statement from the Cuban Baseball Federation says that the athlete’s decision is “contrary to the commitment made to the people.” Fearing that others would follow his example, they ordered — according to what is known — a confiscation of delegation members’ phones to prevent further escapes. And, it is said, César’s family will be evicted from the house that the Government gave him, which shows that such a gift is in exchange for submission.
This behavior on the part of the State explains the degree of dependency to which Cuban athletes are subjected and the true cause of the escapes. The dependency in which the sport is held and the lack of freedom of the athletes provide the answer to why Cuban ballplayers did not flee before 1959, why they flee now, and why players from other countries do not flee.
Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison