Cuban Sports: Saved by Capitalism?

September 25, 2007

Any mention of the island of Cuba conjures up images of many things: lush beaches covered with fine white sand lapped by crystal clear blue-green water; signature royal palm trees hundreds of feet high; sweet cigars that appeal to even the most adamant non-smoker; strong, sweet coffee served everywhere in demitasse cups; ubiquitous music; and finely kept old U.S.-made cars—that run! Many of these things were around long before the revolution of 1959 and will certainly remain for years to come. Then there are things put in place by the revolutionary government itself, for which the island is also now well-known, that may or may not survive a transformation of the Cuban political system.

Post-1959 Cuba brought about many changes for Cubans. One of the most important has been that since the revolution all Cubans—not just the rich, the white and the privileged—have received free, high-quality education, giving Cuba one of the highest rates of literacy in the world. All Cubans also have access to free health care, a privilege not even enjoyed by some of the most “advanced” industrialized countries in the world. And all Cubans have been guaranteed the basic staples necessary for nutrition, such as milk, rice, beans, meat, eggs and vegetables. In addition, for a small country with a popu lation of fewer than 12 million people, Cuba has won a disproportionate number of medals in regional and worldwide sporting competitions.

To what extent, in the post-Cold War climate, are these characteristics of Cuban society still real advantages for ordinary Cubans? It has long been known that the quality of Cuban health care has been declining, and not only as a result of the scant medicines and medical supplies available under the U.S. embargo. It is also common knowledge that schools lack equipment, supplies and access to various sources of information, such as the Internet. As for food, Cubans themselves continue circulating the longstanding joke: The three successes of the revolution are education, health care and sports. The three failures are breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Cuban sports system has declined along with many other hallmarks of the revolution. Even the elite sports schools seem to have suffered some of the same cutbacks and indignities as the regular schools. Yet the sports system, unlike most other official government programs, appears to be self-financing, perhaps even profitable. Athletes, coaches and trainers are sent to other countries, or train foreign teams in Cuba, for salaries unheard of on the island—the bulk of which is turned over to the government.

As with other areas of the system, i.e. tourism, it seems that the compromises the revolutionary government has deemed necessary for survival in the post-1991 economic climate threaten to undercut the very principles upon which that system is based. It is difficult to avoid the question of whether the cure is worse than the disease, at least if one is concerned with the “principles” of the revolution. The current state and purposes of the Cuban sports system brings many of these contradictions into stark relief.

Shortly after the 1959 revolution, the government established the Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) and made success in sports competitions a primary goal. But the program has from the beginning been two-pronged. On the one hand, it ensures the development of sports for all Cubans, but more importantly, the program provides for the training of high level, competitive, world-class athletes.[1] Although the post-Cold War economic situation has affected both of these goals, it was the general population that felt the first cutbacks. The Cuban Sports Industry, which produces the Batos brand of sports equipment, significantly reduced the production of low-quality sports gear for schools and other popular venues in the 1990s.[2] In the area of high-level competitive sports, a reduction in funding has greatly lowered morale and led to an increasing number of defections of both athletes and coaches. Yet within the last decade, emerging from a low point in the mid-1990s, it is possible to see Cubans—once again—resolviendo, “making do,” adjusting to the circumstances they face. For example, provincial-level baseball players are sometimes eager to sell their uniforms, literally stripping them off following a game. In spring of 2003, U.S. students on a university-sponsored trip offered $25 a jersey following one game and were stunned by the rapid response from the players.[3]

Much has been written about the dual purposes of Cuba’s sports program.[4] The system serves domestic goals by providing for the participation of all Cubans in some type of sport from pre-school through high school. Such mass participation in competitive sports allows those who oversee the development of high-level athletic talent to discover potential national champions. The objectives of the system are mutually reinforcing.

Besides spotlighting the Cuban Revolution and symbolizing its successes, international sports victories give Cubans pride in the Revolution and reinforce nationalism. This enhances the revolutionary government’s legitimacy, particularly during periods of scarcity and deprivation, as in the 1960s or mid-1990s. Cuba cultivates internationally competitive athletes with an elaborate “farm” system, which allows those with extraordinary talent to be identified. Athletes chosen from this pool are then funneled to expert training schools for further instruction. Thus, the process is predicated on universalizing sports participation and making it an essential revolutionary activity.

Both of these goals are supported by a highly structured system of physical education that is incorporated into the educational system in two ways. First, all Cuban children are required to participate in sports, beginning in pre-school. From the elementary school level on, they participate in a countrywide competition called the School Games. Second, the most promising young athletes are chosen to attend specialized sports schools. There are 15 Schools for Sports Instruction (EIDEs), one in each province and two in Havana. The next level up in this system includes 14 Schools for Superior Athletic Refinement (ESPAs), 162 sports academies and two Centers for High Performance (CEARs) in Havana. Cuba also has specialized schools to train physical education teachers, as well as coaches and trainers.

These specialized facilities integrate intensive practice and training in specific sports with the full academic curricula of regular schools. The school day is adjusted to accommodate both the national academic requirements and the demands of the particular sport. Indeed, even while a student is competing at the national and international level, focus on the student’s post-competition life continues. Most significantly, university-level athletes are paid the salary they would receive in their chosen non-sports career to support themselves during study, training and competition. For example, two-time 1976 Olympic gold medalist and economics student Alberto Juantorena was allotted the salary he would earn later in life as an economist.[5]

The current economic environment has taken its toll on the existing sports facilities, which grow shabbier with each year. Yet this has not stopped Cuba from expanding its already extensive sports system. The government opened the International School of Physical Education in September 2000 to train international students. Last summer, 11 scholarships to study at the school were awarded to indigenous youths from Ecuador. Even more significantly, a brand-new anti-doping laboratory was inaugurated in February 2001; the facility cost the government a whopping $5 million. In November 2003, the Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee officially certified the lab. Of 31 such accredited laboratories worldwide, only four others are located in the Americas: Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá, Los Angeles and Montreal.[6] Perhaps Cuba built the lab to avoid another embarrassment like high-jump world record holder Javier Sotomayor testing positive for illegal drugs in 1999 and being stripped of his Pan American Games gold medal and banned from international competition. Also, the construction of this lab certainly does not hurt Cuba’s chances of winning their bid to host the 2012 Olympics, another possible motivation for such an expense.

The national sport of baseball, known locally as pelota, continues to figure prominently in the sports system’s agenda. A new National Training School for Baseball Coaches opened its doors at the end of last year at the Physical Culture Faculty in Santiago de Cuba. The staff of 14 professors, all specialists in sports training, is tasked to further develop baseball from the grassroots to the highest levels of international competition. The first 29 students have university degrees and currently work in various areas of competitive sports. They will take 132 credit hours of courses, aimed primarily at further developing team management skills, as well as technical and tactical training.

These recent developments (among others) indicate an overall recovery from the lows of the early to mid-1990s, when many Cubans lost weight due to extreme food shortages and night baseball games were eliminated to avoid the cost of lighting the stadiums.

A shortage of raw materials in the last decade forced the Batos brand of the Cuban Sports Industry (CSI) to cut production of sports equipment by approximately 40%.[7] But by 2003, production resumed on hundreds of sports goods previously frozen under the economic strains of the 1990s, such as head protectors and gloves for both boxing and baseball. Batos is now also making uniforms and providing recreational equipment, lighting and electronic switchboards for the Second Olympics of Cuban Sport in spring of 2004, a national multi-sport tournament.[8]

In the last five years, cooperative agreements between Batos and some foreign firms have been established and the increased demand has prompted CSI to expand operations throughout the island. There are now subsidiaries in Pinar del Río, Morón in Ciego Avila province, Florida in Camagüey province, Santiago de Cuba and in the mountains around Buey Arriba near Guantanamo. All of these new facilities are dedicated to products made of leather, textiles and wood. In Artemisa, a town 40 miles southwest of Havana, there is now a small footwear manufacturing facility. However, a significant proportion of Batos’s production is for export, a seeming departure from the revolutionary slogan of “Cuba for the Cubans.”[9]

Cuban sports equipment is not the only commodity for sale. Sports expertise and showcasing are also breadwinners for the program. Over the last several years, sports officials have claimed that the system is paying for itself. Sports earn hard currency from prize money for the winners of international competitions, contracts for official exchanges of Cuban athletes and coaches, the export of sports equipment and fees charged for interviews with athletes and officials.[10]

At international sporting events, countries sometimes pay the expenses of Cuban athletes competing in exchange for coaching or performance expertise. The Australian government, for example, funded the travel and lodging for the entire Cuban contingent of 300 athletes competing at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. When Cuban athletes are showcased abroad, they sometimes play together as a team or separately on a variety of the host country’s teams. Contracts for such deals are signed with—and the hard currency goes to—the Cuban Sports Federation. Individual players and trainers receive only a fraction of the earnings.

In 2002, five Cuban baseball stars were “retired early” to play or coach in Japan. Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelán and Antonio Pacheco played with Japanese teams, while Luis Ulacia and German Mesa coached. Individual Cuban athletes have also been known to enter specific events, such as the Los Angeles Marathon, in hopes of winning large purses, up to 80% of which would go to the state.[11]

INDER has also established a sports organization called CubaDeportes, which functions as both a public relations and organizational management firm. All inquiries by journalists (or others) for information or interviews with athletes or coaches are referred to CubaDeportes, which then collects fees from the interviewers for its services.

In what is perhaps the ultimate irony, Cuba is building golf courses throughout the island, so that tourists can play the consummate elitist sport. In 2000, Leisure Canada Inc. (LCI) announced that it planned to develop a resort complex in Jibacoa containing 11 luxury hotels, two 18-hole golf courses, a marina and other developments, although no completion date has been set.[12] These efforts in sports to ensure the survival of Cuba’s socialist system are succeeding, but at what cost? Cuba’s use of its sports expertise to make money is a decidedly capitalist approach. However, the ultimate rejection of the Cuban sports system comes from those who choose to abandon it. Defections of athletes and coaches at international competitions has become so commonplace that the Winnipeg Sun actually ran a “count-the-defectors” contest in which readers guessed the number of defectors at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. The grand prize was a one-week trip for two to Cuba. The Cuban government accused the Canadian press of “inciting desertion.”[13] According to Jose Ramón Fernández, the head of Cuban sports, “People are trying to lure athletes with verbal and written offers so that they defect. [Agents] stalk them in the village…. We resent these people who offer…five or 10 million to play professionally under another flag. To us, that’s aggression.”[14] In the United States, of course, it’s called free agency. Cuban President Fidel Castro condemned the efforts of “a whole gang, a mafia dedicated to buying baseball players from our country.” He called the organized attempts to “rob” the island of its top athletes by offering them lucrative professional contracts “unfair and disgusting.”[15]

The list of defectors grows longer with each passing year, although most people only hear of the select few—such as the baseball-playing Hernandez brothers—that receive multi-million dollar contracts. The May 30, 2000, edition of the Boston Globe included a list of over 100 defectors, yet few were living charmed lives in this country. In fact, the same edition of the Globe ran a story about a former Cuban water polo player now working as a lifeguard in Miami who regretted an early decision to switch from baseball to swimming:

If I was a baseball player, maybe I would be rich now. You don’t know. I am a good friend of El Duque [Orlando Hernandez, who signed with the New York Yankees] and I can see the difference between my life and his life pretty easy. We were in the same school in Cuba, practicing athletics on the national team. Now, we are in the U.S.A. and I think, “He’s rich and I’m poor.” I’ve got to wake up every morning and go to work; roll call is at 8:30. He’s an important person. He gets to do the same thing that he was doing all his life.[16]

Recruiting and signing Cuban baseball players has become a lucrative industry, at least for some. The top recruiter is Cuban expatriate Joe Cubas. According to Washington Post reporter Mark Maske, Cubas uses “secret meetings, notes passed through intermediaries and 3 a.m. hotel-room planning sessions to help players defect while they’re traveling with the Cuban national team.”[17] He has become adept at having players skirt the U.S. amateur draft, which has limited signing bonuses, by seeking asylum or residency in a third country, usually the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica. They can then enter Major League Baseball (MLB) as unfettered free agents. The more lucrative signings have led some MLB management officials to lobby for a worldwide draft, something to which the Players Association refuses to agree.

Cuban sports officials remain defiant about the defections. According to Jose Ramón Balaguer, head of ideology for the Cuban Communist Party, “For every three, four, however many, who go away, the system will always generate athletes of the same or superior quality…. It bothers us, we don’t like it, that there are men capable of selling themselves by abandoning the country.”[18] Noticeably absent from his analysis was any comment on the “retired” Cuban peloteros who are playing in Japan and elsewhere, and whose salaries are recovered by the Cuban government.

Perhaps this is the beauty of the Cuban sports system. It is not only self-financing, but also self-renewing. The results of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney tell the tale: Cuba placed ninth overall with 11 gold medals, 11 silver medals and 7 bronze medals. Every year, more talented Cuban athletes enter Cuban sports schools and compete in the School Games, with dreams of becoming heroes of the Revolution. Sometimes the dream becomes reality.

Yet Cuban reality can feel like a parallel universe. The exigencies of real life may force some athletes to make other choices. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, now a star pitcher for the Montreal Expos, felt that the choice was made for him. When his brother Livan defected in 1995, Orlando was banned from playing baseball for fear that he too would defect. This soon-to-be MLB MVP temporarily took a job sweeping floors at a psychiatric hospital before he left. In other cases, the motives are not quite so lofty. According to two gymnasts who recently defected, “We don’t have a future and there’s no way to have any fun [in Cuba].”[19] Unfortunately, gymnasts are unlikely to sign million dollar contracts. After a few years of working in the United States, they may find that it is not as much “fun” as they had anticipated. Such are the realities of capitalism.

For the Cuban system, however, the real danger lies in its contradictions. Perhaps a fair comparison can be drawn with the former Soviet Union. Marxist-Leninist ideology was the glue that held the system together. When that “pretense” began to break down, the entire system crumbled. In the U.S.S.R., the qualitative change that resulted from the reforms of Gorbachev—in an attempt to keep the system alive—ironically tore it apart. As long as all Cubans feel they are marching together toward the same goal, and receiving relatively equal benefits for their sacrifices, the system can continue, and even thrive. On the other hand, when ordinary Cubans see that some of their countrymen—and certainly the tourists who are flocking to Cuban beaches—are living on a different level, they will begin to doubt the sincerity of the revolutionary slogans.

About the Author
Paula J. Pettavino teaches political science at Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia. She is co-author of Sports in Cuba: The Diamond in the Rough, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.

1. For more information, see Paula J. Pettavino and Geralyn Pye, Sport in Cuba: The Diamond in the Rough (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994).
2. Based on the author’s observations from 1980 and 2000-2003.
3. Personal observations by the author, March 2003. These were players from one of the 16 provincial teams that play in the national series.
4. Paula J. Pettavino and Geralyn Pye, Sport in Cuba.
5. Paula J. Pettavino and Geralyn Pye, Sport in Cuba, p. 166.
6. Notimex, November 23, 2003.
7. Paula Pettavino and Philip Brenner, “More Than Just a Game,” Peace Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1999, p. 528.
8. The Olympics of Cuban Sport were begun in 2002 when Cuba refused to participate in the Central American and Caribbean Games in El Salvador. Cuba claimed that exile groups were planning to kidnap Cuban athletes and assassinate its top sports officials.
9. “All About Cuba: Cuban Sports Industry,” Cuba Sports, .
10. Paula Pettavino and Philip Brenner, “More than Just a Game,” p. 526.
11. Jim Hodges, “Sharing Profits with His Country Price Runner is Obliged to Pay,” Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1997.
12. Leisure Canada Inc.,“LCI Continues to Move Forward in Cuba,” BCE Emergis e-News Services, August 17, 2000.
13. “Now There Are Two Norths,” Miami Herald, July 30, 1999.
14. Steve Simmons, “Cubans Losing Focus,” The London Free Press, July 30, 1999.
15. Reuters, “Castro Slams ‘Robbery’ of Cuban Baseball Stars,” July 23, 1998.
16. Shira Springer, “Keeping Their Heads Above Water,” Boston Globe, May 30, 2000.
17. Mark Maske, “Cuban Players’ Agent Banks on Talent Show,” Washington Post, February 2, 1997, D3.
18. Andrew Cawthorne, “Defiant Cuba Says Defections Not Hurting Sports,” April 22, 1998.
19. “Two Cuban Gymnasts Defect in California,” The New York Times, August 20, 2003.

Tags: Cuba, sports, capitalism, baseball, physical education, culture

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