Millions of dollars await Cuba's missing baseball ace

·5 min read
Infielder Cesar Prieto #6 of Cuba reacts after grounded out in the top of the seventh inning during the WBSC Premier 12 Opening Round Group C game between South Korea and Cuba at the Gocheok Sky Dome on November 08, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea - Chung Sung-Jun /Getty Images AsiaPac 
Infielder Cesar Prieto #6 of Cuba reacts after grounded out in the top of the seventh inning during the WBSC Premier 12 Opening Round Group C game between South Korea and Cuba at the Gocheok Sky Dome on November 08, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea - Chung Sung-Jun /Getty Images AsiaPac

The riches that await Cesar Prieto could be vast.

But for one of the most talented Cuban baseball players of his generation to seize a lucrative multi-million dollar professional contract he must first re-emerge from hiding.

After disappearing into a waiting car just hours after touching down with the national team in America, his whereabouts have been a mystery since Thursday.

His own government, meanwhile, stands humiliated.

Mr Prieto, 22, is arguably the most high profile Cuban sportsman to defect to the US since José Abreu in 2016, but he follows many hundreds of compatriots, very few of whom succeed.

The Cuban team is in the United States to take part in a qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics.

There had been fears they would fail to get visas because the US embassy in Havana has been closed to all but emergency consular services since 2018 with visa requests handled in other countries.

D doctor's office decorated with a Castro and a Cuban flag, in the Alamar neighborhood of Havana, Cuba - Ramon Espinosa /AP
D doctor's office decorated with a Castro and a Cuban flag, in the Alamar neighborhood of Havana, Cuba - Ramon Espinosa /AP

However, Washington made a special exemption and allowed the Cuban team to apply in Havana.

The defection is awkward on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

Cuba is adjusting to life without any members of the Castro family in power after Raul stepped down as head of the communist party.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, president of Cuba since 2019 and now first secretary of the party, reportedly made a special visit to the Cuban team after they received their visas and delivered a “patriotic speech”, seen as an attempt to ward off exactly the kind of defection undertaken by Mr Prieto.

That it happened anyway “will really sting the government” says Dr Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House. Baseball is a point of pride for Cuba, as both a national obsession and a way to prove the strength of the revolution.

The defection shows that “even national heroes might not be driven at all by revolutionary fervour and patriotism”, says Dr Sabatini. “It undercuts the whole sense of the revolution because these are people who have been coddled by the regime and enjoy privileges beyond 90-95 per cent of the population”.

Infielder Cesar Prieto #6 of Cuba flies out in the top of fifth inning during the WBSC Premier 12 Opening Round Group C game between South Korea and Cuba at the Gocheok Sky Dome on November 08, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea - Getty Images AsiaPac /Chung Sung-Jun 
Infielder Cesar Prieto #6 of Cuba flies out in the top of fifth inning during the WBSC Premier 12 Opening Round Group C game between South Korea and Cuba at the Gocheok Sky Dome on November 08, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea - Getty Images AsiaPac /Chung Sung-Jun

For the US it is unhelpful too. Baseball, and sports more widely, is an obvious area for soft power diplomacy, but the defection will make it much harder for Cuba to cooperate further on visas, says Dr Sabatini.

President Joe Biden is reluctant to engage on Cuba and has found it harder than observers might have hoped to revive Barack Obama’s thawing of relations with Havana.

Cuban-Americans in Miami swung heavily against the president in November’s election, while with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the process of confirming his diplomatic appointments, Biden cannot afford to alienate senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, both ardent hawks on Cuba.

Mr Prieto, meanwhile, is just one of hundreds to have defected.

Cuban players are prevented from playing in the US by the American economic embargo on the island. They must cut ties with their home country if they wish to move.

Those who defect are usually cut off from their families by the Cuban regime, making it a much tougher decision than it might seem.

Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Company, hands out a special edition of the Miami Herald with the headline "Castro Dead," in front of the Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami  - Wilfredo Lee /AP
Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Company, hands out a special edition of the Miami Herald with the headline "Castro Dead," in front of the Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami - Wilfredo Lee /AP

Still, as a promising young star, Mr Prieto has the potential to earn tens of millions of dollars in the US, although he may have to remerge in a third country to avoid the draft and secure a lucrative free agency.

Those riches and byzantine rules have combined to expose young baseball players to human traffickers.

Would-be migrants will pay around $10,000 dollars to be smuggled into America, but traffickers can potentially make much more money if they can secure a cut of a professional contract.

Hardened criminals have targetted young Cuban baseballers, even going as far as to kidnap them.

In 2012, Yasiel Puig was taken via speedboat from Cuba to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula by smugglers linked to the violent Zetas cartel. He’d agreed to give 20 per cent of his future earnings to a Florida businessman who had organised and paid for his emigration.

Cuban baseball player Cesar Prieto, front, walks on the field during a break from a training session at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba - Ramon Espinosa /AP
Cuban baseball player Cesar Prieto, front, walks on the field during a break from a training session at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba - Ramon Espinosa /AP

The smugglers, however, held him hostage on a Mexican island and doubled the price, forcing the businessman to arrange for local police to rescue Mr Puig. He later signed a $42 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but in 2015 the number of baseball defectors was between 100-150, itself a substantial increase on previous figures.

Nevertheless, in the last four decades, fewer than 70 players have played in the major leagues.

In late 2018, Major League Baseball negotiated a deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation which would have allowed some Cuban players to move to the US and seen American teams visit Cuba for exhibition matches and training camps.

But, less than a year later, the Trump administration cancelled it.

The whole situation is a missed diplomatic and humanitarian opportunity says Dr Sabatini, “that the United States is willing to allow Cubans to risk their lives over a half-century or more old grudge is out and out cruel.”