Cuban baseball players abandon team in Mexico in largest defection in years

·2 min read
A Cuban baseball fan carries a flag of Cuba during the game between Colombia and Cuba
A Cuban baseball fan carries a flag of Cuba during the game between Colombia and Cuba

Nearly a dozen players on Cuba’s national baseball team have defected during a tournament in Mexico.

Eleven of the 24 members taking part in a World Cup tournament for players under the age of 23 fled over the weekend, in what is believed to be one of the communist country's largest and most embarrassing known incidents of mass defection in years.

Cuban officials called the players' actions "vile abandonments" and accused them of having “weak morals”.

The defection of the players, who were supposed to return to the island yesterday (MON), is one of the biggest such losses by a Cuban team playing abroad.

Cuban baseball players are often recruited by scouts looking to sign them to play with major league clubs, and the strained relations between the US and Cuba prevents them from a regular hiring process.

In 2018, the Caribbean nation signed an agreement with Major League Baseball on normalising sports relations, but it was soon annulled by the Trump administration, which took a hard line against Cuba seeking to pressure the island's Communist government into making political changes.

Typically only the players who are seen as most loyal to the government are selected to play abroad and are accompanied by government chaperones to prevent them from defecting.

Amid rising Covid-10 cases, food shortages and power outages, anti-government protests erupted across the island in July. Cubans took to the streets with chants of "Libertad", Spanish for "freedom."

"I hate the word 'defect' because it makes Cuba (sound) like an army," said Yale professor emeritus Roberto González Echevarría, author of Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.

"What has to be taken into account is that all of these players, including the ones doing well in the major leagues, are looking for freedom,” he told USA Today. “They want freedom just like those Cubans who are going through the frontier in Mexico or the many others who are risking their lives in boats."

Cuba wrapped up its part of the U23 tournament Saturday, losing to Colombia in the bronze medal game. The U23 World Cup was held in Mexico's northern state of Sonora.