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Free Play By: Joseph D'Hippolito
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Despite nearly 50 years of repression, privation and brutality, Cuba remains one of the most popular nations in the West. Spectators at the opening ceremonies for the Olympics in Athens gave the Cuban delegation one of the warmest, most enthusiastic receptions any country received.

But four Cuban athletes – two of whom represent the United States in Athens – demonstrate by their words and experiences the truth that Leftists, academics and assorted posers blissfully ignore.

Gymnast Annia Hatch, triple jumper Yuliana Perez and soccer players Alberto Delgado and Rey Angel Martinez brought Cuba success on fields, tracks and arenas around the world. All now compete for or in the United States.

Hatch, 26, won Cuba’s first medal in a major international gymnastics competition: bronze in the vault at the 1996 world championships. Eight years later, she earned an Olympic silver medal in the vault and helped the United States win silver in team competition.

Perez, 23, earned silver for Cuba in the 1997 Junior Pan American Games before making the United States’ Olympic team seven years later. Delgado, 26, and Martinez, 24, both played on Cuba’s soccer team before defecting in 2002, and now play for Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids.

“Life is like a joke there,” Martinez passionately said about his homeland. “There’s no opportunity for anyone. There’s practically no life there. Nourishment is pretty bad. There’s pressure. Whether you have money or don’t have money, whether you have work or don’t have work, everything is the same in Cuba.”

Winning seven consecutive national championships before turning 18 merely exacerbated Hatch’s burden.

“When I was younger and competing for Cuba, all the pressure was on me,” she told the Nashville Tennessean. “I had to be perfect all the time. Now I just want to compete and enjoy it.”

The pressure Hatch felt came from a system that demanded world-class athletes to serve as evangelists for Communism. The Cubans adopted the Soviet system of state-run sports schools and clubs designed to produce technically proficient, ideologically correct world-class athletes. A coach’s fundamental duty was to instill what one Soviet periodical called a “high Communist consciousness” in which athletes saw themselves as “Soviet patriots … irreconcilable to the enemies of socialism and Communism.”

Developing technical proficiency often meant taking an impersonal attitude toward prospective athletes. When Annia Portuondo enrolled in a Cuban gymnastics academy at age 6, coaches thought she had no future, said her husband, Alan Hatch.

The academy re-tested her when she was 8 but the coaches thought her “feet were too flat” and her “elbow wasn’t right,” Alan Hatch said. But one coach, Rene Sason, believed she could excel and convinced the other coaches to keep her in the academy.

Two years later, Portuondo won her first championship. At 14, she signed a 10-year contract with the Cuban gymnastics federation. But despite her excellence, she never competed at the 1996 Olympics; her coach defected at that year’s world championship and the Cuban Olympic Committee failed to file the proper paperwork necessary for her to compete. Devastated, she retired from gymnastics at 17.

Encouraging ideological correctness meant discarding promising athletes who might threaten the Communist agenda. Two years after winning a medal in the Junior Pan American Games, Perez found herself homeless after refusing to renounce her United States citizenship.

Perez was born in Tucson, Ariz. to parents who escaped Cuba on the Mariel boat lift. But her family soon disintegrated and Perez became an orphan when her mother died in San Diego from a stray bullet.

After moving between Foster homes, Perez moved to Cuba at age 5 to live with her grandmother, enrolled in a track academy and became so good that even Fidel Castro hugged her after one of her meets.

The Cuban Olympic committee considered Perez for its 2000 Olympic team until she refused to relinquish her U.S. citizenship. Then the track program dumped her. An argument with her family ensued, and Perez found herself living on the streets.

Early promise propelled Delgado and Martinez from their soccer academy to Ciudad de la Habana, one of the best clubs in Cuba’s top league, and the national team. With their help, Ciudad de la Habana won one championship and reached the final twice between 1998 and 2001.

As a 20-year old in 1998, Delgado led the league with 16 goals. Three years later, he set a national-team record with four goals against Surinam.

But athletic success could not compensate for the revolution’s broken promises. Sports offered an opportunity to avoid starvation, and Delgado used his position on the national team to sneak food to his family.

“There was nothing in Cuba but the thirst to play for the national team,” Delgado said. “The players on the national team got better nourishment. Nobody went hungry.”

But those players faced constant scrutiny from burly security guards employed not to protect them, but to keep them from defecting. The guards ensured that players assembled for training and meals – and even were ordered to shoot potential defectors.

However, the four found a different way out.

lan Hatch was coaching the United States’ gymnastics team at the 1996 world championships when fell in love with Annia Portuondo. He married her in 1997 and brought her to West Haven, Conn.

Annia Hatch was busy coaching young gymnasts and studying design when in 2001, her husband read an Internet article about one of Annia’s former Cuban teammates who resumed gymnastics at 22 after having a baby. Annia began training the next day.

But the 10-year contract she signed in Cuba prevented her from competing for the United States until last year. Once she received her release, Hatch won the vault at two international competitions. Then she tore knee ligaments days before the 2003 world championships.

But Hatch recovered to win her second consecutive national vault championship this year, and made the Olympic squad after impressing coaches at a tryout camp in July.

“Hard moments in your life make you stronger,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “Definitely, I fell proud about who I am and where I come from. This is what America is all about. Everybody comes from everywhere.

Perez needed unexpected kindness to leave Cuba. Tom Miller, a Tucson reporter who travels to Cuba regularly, interviewed Perez for an HBO special and returned with an affidavit that gave him permission to examine her legal records. When Perez went to the U.S. interests section of the Swiss embassy to get the document notarized, a clerk gave her an application for a United States passport.

During a subsequent trip to Cuba, Miller found a haggard, homeless Perez and gave her some money. She arrived in Tucson in 2000 with $800 and her belongings in a backpack, and joined the track team at Pima Community College. Perez won five national community college championships, earned All America honors eight times and took two national outdoor triple jump titles.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I would be able to represent anybody in the Olympics,” Perez told Tucson’s KVOA-TV. “I just wanted to come to the United States so I could have a better life than the one I had in Cuba.”

Delgado and Martinez were already in the United States for an international soccer tournament when they decided to defect from their hotel in suburban Los Angeles in January 2002 while their teammates were having breakfast.

The pair fooled their teammates into thinking that they were going into the lobby to make a telephone call. But Delgado left his wallet in his room, so he arranged to meet Martinez at a nearby bridge.

Martinez got to the bridge, waited five minutes, thought Delgado changed his mind, then started running frantically for about half an hour, afraid of Cuban agents he thought were pursuing him.

“I ran so fast,” Martinez told the Denver Post, “that the only thing going through my head was, ‘They are behind me! They are behind me!’”

When Delgado arrived at the bridge, he didn’t see Martinez. So he headed back to the hotel to get help from a local Cuban named Julio Roche, whom Delgado had seen at the hotel having breakfast that morning. Roche previously told both players to contact him if they wanted to defect.

As Delgado approached the hotel, he saw Roche driving his truck off the parking lot and jumped in the cargo bed. Meanwhile, Martinez stopped running and took a taxi to Roche’s apartment, where the two players were reunited. Within days, they went to Miami by truck. The Rapids discovered them in February at a local amateur tournament.

Despite feeling safe in their new homeland, Delgado and Martinez worry about the loved ones they want to protect from Castro’s vengeance and hope to bring to the United States. When asked about Delgado’s family, Martinez declined to talk.

“In Cuba,” Martinez said, “they pit one family member against another.”

Castro fears other Cubans learning what Martinez, Delgado, Perez, Hatch and millions of fellow émigrés already know. 

“It’s impossible,” Martinez said, “for a human being to live without freedom.”

Joseph D’Hippolito is a columnist for Frontpagemag.com, whose main focuses are religion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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