Cuban baseball players defect during tournament in Mexico

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Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, The players were taking part in the U-23 baseball World Cup in Mexico

At least nine young Cuban baseball players have defected during a tournament in Mexico, officials say, in the largest defection of Cuban athletes in years.

Cuban officials called the players' actions during the World Cup for athletes under the age of 23 "vile abandonments", state media report.

The rest of the team, which originally had 24 players, will return on Monday.

Cuban athletes have a long history of defecting while competing abroad.

Baseball players often leave to sign up with Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs in the US, as strained relations between the US and Cuba prevent them from taking part in a regular hiring process.

The statement by Cuba's National Sports Institute, published on the official JIT website and quoted by the Associated Press news agency, did not name the players who had stayed in Mexico.

But baseball journalist Francys Romero said a total of 12 players had defected.

A deal that allowed some Cuban players to sign with MLB clubs was cancelled by President Donald Trump in 2018, in an attempt to pressure the island's Communist government to implement political changes. The agreement meant athletes no longer had to abscond and leave Cuba illegally.

A sign of the crisis at home

Defections of high-profile sportsmen and women from Cuba is nothing new - but is always an indication of the extent of the problems at home. And if this latest round of pitchers, batters and catchers to flee their hotel in Mexico is anything to go by, economic conditions on the island are especially acute at present.

The mass defection is of particular frustration and embarrassment to the Cuban authorities not only for the number of players to defect at once, but also their ages. In their early 20s, they represented the future of Cuban baseball, charged with returning Cuba to the top after the island failed to qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo 2020 for the first time in its history.

Unsurprisingly, the government responded by attacked the players for being "weak" in morals and ethics. However, its main criticism was for the US for maintaining the decades-long economic embargo while offering such lucrative contracts that the cream of Cuban baseball can hardly refuse. Cuba also accuses the MLB of engaging in practices tantamount to human-smuggling in order to bring the players to the US.

The truth is, however, as long as those multi-million dollar contracts and endorsements are available just 90 miles (145km) away from Cuba, defection will remain a sorely tempting option for any aspiring baseball star on the increasingly impoverished island.

The most recent high-profile player to defect was 22-year-old César Prieto, one of the country's top baseball stars, who abandoned the team earlier this year while in Florida for an Olympics qualifying event.

Ballet dancers and footballers are also among athletes who have fled during major competitions.

Cuba is in the midst of an economic crisis, with food and medicine shortages, and has been hit hard by US sanctions and Covid-19. In July, thousands of people joined the biggest anti-government protests in the island for decades.

Media caption, Thousands protested in Cuba in July over the government's handling of coronavirus and the economy

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