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Cuba will let athletes sign with foreign leagues

For the greater goodYulieski Gourriel has been among those who have never been tempted to defect. If the policy change comes to pass, however, it could open the floodgates for all professional sportsmen and women - a move that could prove good for the players, Cuba and for everybody involved, as more people would be in the big leagues, bringing in more experience for international tournaments.photo: AP
For the greater goodYulieski Gourriel has been among those who have never been tempted to defect. If the policy change comes to pass, however, it could open the floodgates for all professional sportsmen and women - a move that could prove good for the players, Cuba and for everybody involved, as more people would be in the big leagues, bringing in more experience for international tournaments.photo: AP

Communist Cuba has put the world on notice it has warmed to professional sports after more than five decades, and will let stars sign big contracts abroad without having to defect.

New rules announced on Friday take effect in January and are aimed at “perfecting sports, generating sources of income, and encouraging quality,” the government acknowledged in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

Money is key

Generating sources of income is the key. Money is critical to President Raul Castro’s severely cash-strapped nation, the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas.

For decades, through and after the Cold War, Cuba thumbed its nose at international pro sport, paying hardworking and fabled athletes close to nothing for the honour of representing their proud nation.

But its economy – largely dependent on Venezuelan subsidies, tourism, earnings of foreign contract workers and remittances from Cubans living abroad – remains feeble. The government has offered minor reforms but still controls virtually the entire stagnant economy.

In turning to a potential “income source” cash cow, the government is treading a fine line, doing more to recognise individual achievement as long as it does not upset the collective apple cart.

Havana said it will let its sport stars sign with international clubs as long as they maintain their responsibilities to Cuba. Havana did not immediately detail what cuts it would expect in such potential future deals.

This should throw open the door for more and more of Cuba’s baseball players – regarded as among the world’s best – to net big paydays in professional leagues overseas.

If there is no recruiters’ stampede, it should not be long in coming.

“I think this could help stop the desertions a little bit,” said Yulieski Gourriel, a talented 29-year-old third baseman who batted .314 last year for Sancti Spiritus, a baseball team in the Cuban National Series.

“I don’t even want to talk about how much I’ve been offered, because every time we leave the country, there are these offers. I’ve never paid attention because I’ve always said I’m not interested.”

A number of his countrymen, however, are interested.

An end to the desertions?

For decades, those who could find a way to defect from baseball-obsessed Cuba often did so, even risking their lives in dangerous sea crossings.

Local salaries are about $20 a month plus perks, while millions of dollars often are an achievable dream for top talent in the United States.

There are more than two dozen Cuban defectors in the US National Baseball League.

Among the newly announced changes – aimed more at recognizing individual achievement – was that sports people and their teams will keep all prize money they win in international tournaments.

Until now, the state has kept 85 percent of cash earnings.

Local pay increases for sportsmen and women – still strikingly low by international standards – were announced as Cuba attempts to regain its competitive edge on the playing field, Granma reported.

Included in the announced changes is a modest increase in pay for all athletes and performance bonus for those who distinguish themselves. Coaches and trainers would also benefit from the salary raises.

The new pay structure for the most part goes into effect next year, but already will affect salaries and purses to be paid to ball players in national championship games to be held this November.Agencies

I think this could help stop the desertions a little bit

glossary

thumb one’s nose – to verbally dismiss someone or something as utterly worthless


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