Why the Future of Cuban Baseball Defected

Mary Anastasia O’Grady The Wall Street Journal

Cuban baseball set a new record in recent weeks when half of its under-23 national team—12 members—defected in Mexico during a World Cup tournament. According to the Miami daily El Nuevo Herald, the previous record was set in 1996 when five Cuban players, also competing in Mexico, opted not to return home.

In other news from the island, the Free Cuban Medical Guild reports that 76 Cuban healthcare workers—mostly doctors—who received one of Cuba’s three-dose Covid-19 vaccines have died of the disease. Judging by that data alone, the much-ballyhooed Cuban biomedical industry appears to be, shall we say, a bit overrated.

Welcome to the disintegration of “the revolution.” From baseball to national healthcare, Cuba is in tatters. And despite unprecedented repression, Cubans, in ever greater numbers, are finding ways to say so.

The ballplayers were part of what the regime called its “patriots” team because they were supposed to embody youthful zeal for the communist state. Instead, when they saw freedom, they bolted—though not all at once. First three went missing, and then another threeLater reports trickled in of one here and two there who failed to show up when expected.

The 12th, according to El Nuevo Herald, vanished while on a team shopping trip to Walmart. He could hardly have chosen a more poetic escape from a life sentence of deep privation, disappearing as he did in a big-box store that screams capitalism. Viva la libertad.

The military dictatorship condemned the players for “vile abandonment.” It’s especially outraged because during the Obama administration it had a deal with Major League Baseball to send players to the U.S. In exchange, baseball executives agreed to garnish part of the paychecks of the young men—most of whom are Cubans of color—and send the dollars to regime fat cats in Havana. President Trump nixed that arrangement because while treating Cuban talent like chattel would be a money-maker for the league and the dictatorship, human-trafficking is against U.S. law.

Defecting is risky. In 2007 when two Cuban boxers defected at the Pan American games in Brazil, then-President Lula da Silva had federal police arrest them; they were returned to Cuba. Like Lula, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is an apologist for Havana. He recently feted Cuban dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel at Mexican Independence Day celebrations. A few days later Mexico’s foreign minister received Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. Some of the players already have agents, but as long as any of them are within the reach of the totalitarians in Havana or their allies, the perilous flight is not over.

In a column last week, El Nuevo Herald sportswriter Jorge Ebro shed light on the motivations of the players who defected by considering those who didn’t: “Those who decided to return know that they return, as one said in a private message, to blackouts and to the same slow dying from day to day, to that everyday nothingness where suddenly you realize that you have grown old and your talent to play baseball, a lot or a little, is useless.”

The dictatorship’s disastrous handling of Covid-19 may also be to blame for the exodus of the players.

The regime says it has been vaccinating the population since mid-May and claims that it has reached more than 80% of Cubans with at least the first dose of one of its three-dose vaccines—Abdala, Soberana 02 or Soberana Plus. Cubans are not told which vaccine they receive. But no independent agency, anywhere in the world, has evaluated and certified any of the three. The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba told me last week that it has a documented case of an individual who received all three doses of one of the Cuban vaccines but who, when tested in Miami, had zero antibodies.

The high number of deaths among vaccinated healthcare workers, as reported by the medical guild, and media reports last month of surging infections and deaths—including in the military hierarchy—despite the vaccine campaign suggest something is wrong. Yet it’s impossible to know what because of the regime’s deliberate lack of transparency when it comes to healthcare. Those who raise questions are often punished, like vocational-school professor Julio Merladet, who was fired last week, and Dr. Manuel Guerra, who wasdetained over the weekend.

The Cuban pharmaceutical business is particularly sensitive because the regime hopes to use its lab research to raise hard currency and advance its image as a benevolent police state. It has already exported Abdala to Venezuela, and Cuban vaccines are headed for Vietnam. Mr. López Obrador said in July that Mexico is interested in buying shots from Havana. Iran is also on Cuba’s short list of potential customers.

Yet peer-reviewed clinical trials are nonexistent, which makes these populations guinea pigs and means the World Health Organization is again not doing its job.

Cuba to recognize — and regulate — cryptocurrencies

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba’s government said Thursday it will recognize — and regulate — cryptocurrencies for payments on the island.

A resolution published in the Official Gazette said the Central Bank will set rules for such currencies and determine how to license providers of related services within Cuba.

The popularity of such currencies has grown among a technologically savvy group in Cuba as it has become harder to use dollars, in part because of toughened embargo rules imposed under former President Donald Trump.

The Central American nation of El Salvador recently announced it would recognize use of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as a way to encourage remittances from its citizens living abroad.

The currencies, which can wobbly wildly up and down in value, are usually independent of any central bank and use widely distributed blockchain computer codes to keep track of transfers.

Because they can be used for long-distance transactions that are supposedly anonymous, they are often popular with people attempting to evade government regulations — presumably including U.S. restrictions on sending money to places such as Cuba.

The resolution says the Central Bank can authorize use of cryptocurrencies “for reasons of socioeconomic interest” but with the state assuring that their operations are controlled. It also explicitly noted that operations could not involve illegal activities.

A local cryptocurrency expert, programmer Erich García, said some Cubans are already using such devices, often via gift cards, for online purchases.

‘We felt free’: Cubans remain defiant in face of protest crackdown

Scenes of protest like the one in July are very rare in Cuba

The unspoken rule in Cuba has long been: do not speak out.

Even during the island’s dire food shortages, most Cubans have coped with characteristic stoicism, taking care that their mutterings of complaint do not grow into loud calls for change, at least not in front of anyone in authority.

But 11 July was a day unlike any other in modern Cuba.

Months of pent-up frustration bubbled over – not just over food shortages but also the lack of medicines, long power outages, worsening inflation and the coronavirus pandemic.

As the demonstrations quickly spread across the island, the specific conditions which prompted people onto the streets varied slightly from place to place – a greater emphasis on blackouts in San Antonio de los Baños near Havana, more reference to the Covid-19 crisis in the city of Matanzas.

Yet all the protests shared one common chant: “Libertad”. They clamoured for liberty, freedom and change after 63 years of one-party rule.

Cuba tightens control of internet after protests

The Cuban government has introduced new regulations on the use of social media and the internet, which critics say are aimed at stifling dissent.

The decrees were published in the wake of the largest anti-government protests to sweep through the Communist-run island in decades.

People used social media to share footage of the demonstrations and galvanise supporters.

The decrees make inciting acts “that alter public order” a crime.

They also order internet providers to cut access to those who “spread fake news or hurt the image of the state”.

They were published in the Gaceta Oficial newspaper just over a month after thousands of Cubans took to the streets in a rare show of anger with the Communist government.

Internet access in Cuba is now restricted

The protests, which started in the small town of San Antonio de los Baños, seemed to have no formal organiser but appear to have ben convened through an online community forum.

They quickly spread throughout the country after a live broadcast on Facebook of people attending the impromptu march in San Antonio was widely shared.

Access to mobile internet in Cuba was only introduced in December 2018 but has given Cubans the ability to get news from sources other than state-controlled media.

However, Cuba’s telecommunications network remains under the control of the state and in the hours and days following the protests, users found they could not access Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or Telegram.

The director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring firm, told the Associate Press news agency at the time that the outages seemed to be “a response to social media-fuelled protest” by the Cuban government.

Cuban officials said the new decrees were aimed at keeping Cubans safe from cybercrime.

Deputy Communications Minister Wilfredo González told AFP news agency the new regulations were brought in to protect Cubans’ personal data and “their privacy”.

But he added that they would also protect state officials as under the new rules “no one can denigrate an official of our country or our revolutionary process”.

Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco wrote on Twitter that the decrees were a move to tighten the government’s grip on the internet.

Mr Vivanco added that “impacting the country’s prestige” would now be considered a “cybersecurity incident”.

The penalties for those incurring in such “crimes” have not yet been announced.

The BBC

Several Cuban doctors use social media to protest conditions during coronavirus pandemic

MIAMI – Several overworked Cuban doctors and medical students used social media to protest the lack of resources available during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Miguel Angel González Suárez, who works at a hospital in Cuba’s Cienfuegos province used Facebook to report his disappointment with a recent visit by government officials and the lack of solutions to be able to “ensure” the adequate care” of patients.

“We keep working without medicines. I don’t stop to quote them because the list would be extensive, just remember that today it was the cause of death in our center,” González Suárez wrote in Spanish, adding that “the health sector is tired, exhausted, and mostly disappointed.”

Cuban officials’ televised statements haven’t offered any solutions. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged on Monday that oxygen supplies for COVID patients are running low and asked doctors around the country to limit its use.

Although Díaz-Canel has admitted the demands of the pandemic far exceed the capacity of the health care system, Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said on Aug. 10 that there were more complaints about doctors’ poor service than about shortages.

Students at the Universidad de Ciencias Médicas de Holguín are trying to come up with solutions. Ramon Villamil used Facebook to announce the inception of an apolitical group of volunteers who are visiting people who are ill at home.

The Facebook group that staged first in Cuba’s wave of protests

Reuters

“Tired of having no electricity?” read a post in a Facebook group for residents of the small Cuban town of San Antonio de los Banos on July 10. “Fed up of having to listen to the impudence of a government that doesn’t care about you?”

“It’s time to go out and to make demands. Don’t criticize at home: let’s make them listen to us”.

The next day, thousands took to the street in San Antonio, a town of some 50,000 people, 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Havana, kicking off a rare wave of protests throughout the Communist-run country.

Unrest has been growing across Latin America and the Caribbean as unease spreads over COVID-19 lockdowns and rising poverty. But in Cuba authorities have traditionally tightly controlled public spaces, saying unity is key to resisting coup attempts by old Cold War foe the United States.

The protests, Cuba’s most widespread since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, appeared largely spontaneous as Cubans vented frustrations over long lines for food, power outages, medicine shortages as well as curbs on civil freedoms.

Yet an investigation by non-state Cuban outlet El Estornudo – cited by state television and confirmed by Reuters – recently showed that the first protest was convened online by a San Antonio community forum for local people and those who had emigrated.

The Facebook group “City of Humor” – the nickname for San Antonio which hosts a biannual humor festival – was first created in 2017 as a social space, according to one of its three administrators, Miami-based Alexander Perez.

Over time, people also started expressing their gripes, said Perez, 44, a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That prompted him and the other administrators Danilo Roque and Lazaro Gonzalez to try to “educate them” about their civil rights and claiming them through peaceful protest.

Neither Roque nor Gonzalez, whom Perez described as two younger men who lived in San Antonio operating under the pseudonyms to avoid reprisals, responded to request for comment.

The backstory shows how the recent expansion of web access in Cuba has been a gamechanger in fostering forums on social media to share criticism and to mobilize.

It also shows how strengthening relations with the Cuban diaspora – thanks to the internet and greater freedom of movement – is influencing politics on the island at a grassroots level.

Virtual communities like “The City of Humor” exist nationwide and emigres are exhorting local people on them to keep on protesting and expressing solidarity, with some even urging violence.

All this poses a challenge to the government which has allowed relatively unfettered access to the internet, unlike China, which blocks many Western social media apps.

Cuba has blamed the protests on online meddling by counter-revolutionaries backed by the United States, which has for decades openly sought to force reform on it through sanctions and financing for democracy programs.

The administrators of the “City of Humor” did not receive any U.S. funding nor had they coordinated protests with other towns, Perez said.

Cuba, where the state has a monopoly on telecommunications, has suffered intermittent disruptions in access to internet and social media since July 11, in an apparent bid to prevent further unrest.

Protests petered out within a couple of days amid those outages, a large deployment of security forces and a wave of detentions.

TEACHING CIVIL RIGHTS

Posts in “The City of Humor” – which jumped from around 4,000 to nearly 10,000 members after the July 11 protest – show users reminiscing, selling items, promoting businesses and complaining about local issues like water supply.

Perez said the administrators decided three years ago to also attempt to rally the community to demonstrate over shared gripes, with little success.

Last month they felt the time was ripe to try again.

The pandemic and tighter U.S. sanctions had exacerbated Cuba’s economic woes, plunging it into its deepest crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. And the COVID-19 surge was pushing its already creaking healthcare infrastructure to the brink.

“We decided this was the moment,” said Perez.

The announcement of the protest at the church park at 11 a.m. spread by word-of-mouth and messenging applications, according to three San Antonio residents who requested anonymity.

But Perez said he had such low expectations that anyone would show up that he went to the beach that day. So he was stunned to get a call to say the small early turnout had snowballed.

“We certainly never imagined that San Antonio would be the spark that lit the flame causing Cuba to take to the streets three hours later,” he said.

Videos on social media showed San Antonio protesters shouting anti-government slogans like “freedom” and “we are not afraid”.

“My town came out in force because it just can’t take any more,” said one resident, requesting anonymity.

Within hours, President Miguel Diaz-Canel himself showed up, in a bid – he said later in a televised address to the nation – to show “the streets belong to revolutionaries”.

Some videos on social media showed him being heckled but the unrest there and elsewhere soon dwindled amid a crackdown.

Perez said a heavy security presence in San Antonio meant Cubans would have to bide their time until another protest.

But it was noteworthy, he said, that the government already enacted reforms like lifting customs restrictions for travelers bringing in medicine and food in response to the protests.

“If we manage to achieve this in a few hours of protest” he wondered, “what happens if we spend three days in the streets?”