Charlotte’s international sports also bring Cuban defections

Cuba midfielder Dario Suarez (7) trips up past Mexico midfielder Antonio Rios (16) during the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Thursday, July 9, 2015, in Chicago. Mexico won 6-0.
Cuba midfielder Dario Suarez (7) trips up past Mexico midfielder Antonio Rios (16) during the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Thursday, July 9, 2015, in Chicago. Mexico won 6-0. AP

Hosting two international sporting events this month has again made Charlotte the scene of international politics in action.

At least one member of the Cuban national soccer team is believed to have defected to the United States before Wednesday evening’s match against Guatemala at Bank of America Stadium, part of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Midfielder Dario Suarez is reported to have left the team’s Charlotte hotel to run to the supermarket – but didn’t return, according to Spanish-language media reports. CONCACAF officials did not respond to inquiries from the Observer on Thursday.

His departure came two weeks after two Cuban baseball players defected before an exhibition against U.S. collegiate players at BB&T BallPark uptown.

It’s not the allure of Charlotte that’s leading the Cuban players to renounce their home country. The city does not have a large Cuban population, said Ana Suarez of the Latin American Coalition.

Instead, it’s the result of foreign policy that dates back to the Cold War. The players’ official business in Charlotte gives them an easy legal path to permanent residence in the United States.

“Once you make it in, you’re golden,” said Jennifer Cory, a partner with the Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm in Charlotte.

In short, the Cuban Adjustment Act gives Cubans who make it legally to the United States the right to receive permanent status in the country after staying for a year, said Ana Santiago, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The policy was created in the mid-1960s. At the time, Fidel Castro had only recently overthrown the Cuban government and installed a communist regime. The U.S. spent the decade trying unsuccessfully to oust Castro.

That relationship has made international sporting events across the U.S. hotbeds for Cuban defection. Two members of the Cuban soccer team had already left in Chicago. Four Cuban rowers defected to the U.S. this week while taking part in the Pan Am Games in Canada, held near the U.S. border.

‘Lots of Cubans are still leaving’

The news that Cuba and the United States are now renewing diplomatic relations after decades of hostility has generated a great deal of hope in Cuba. But the reality is that wages on the island remain the same. Athletes such as Suarez are paid state wages.

An athlete who has any chance of playing for an even semiprofessional ball club is going to do much better. And many dream of following in the footsteps of landing on professional rosters and becoming instant millionaires.

“So lots of Cubans are still leaving,” said Vicki Huddleston, a retired United States ambassador, who was chief of the United States Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002. “Until there is real opportunity with real wages, these people are going to continue to defect.”

The problem of Cuban athletes defecting goes back decades. William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana,” said we’re seeing a rise because more Cuban teams are coming to the United States to play.

Cuba lifted a prohibition on athletes playing abroad. But the United States embargo prevents players from playing in the U.S. while maintaining their home in Cuba.

“The embargo is really part of the problem here. If it wasn’t for that, a Cuban athlete could come and play professional soccer in the United States, maintain his Cuban residency and citizenship, and go back and play for the Cuban national team whenever they wanted to,“ LeoGrande said.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “They’d be able to play professionally in the United States and make a great salary as a result of that – but also still be able to go home and see their families and play on their national team. Most of these people who are defecting are not defecting for political reasons. They’re defecting for the obvious economic gain.”

The Cuban Adjustment Act makes it possible for them to defect and immediately get on a path to gain permanent residency after a year and then on to citizenship. Experts such as Huddleston said the policy should be tweaked.

But Huddleston and others have called for the administration to end the so-called “wet-foot-dry-foot” policy and treat Cuban immigrants like any other immigrants.

“In a stroke you end all this smuggling,” she said. “You end people taking the chance of going to sea and drowning. Most Cuban-Americans will be happy about it.”

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