TORONTO – For months, the thought of walking out on his team and fleeing to the U.S. lingered on Maikel Chang’s mind.
The young midfielder talked about it with close friends on Cuba’s national soccer team and almost tried his luck on a few occasions, only to let fear deter him. But when he saw his chance – the night before a World Cup qualifying match in Toronto in the fall of 2012 – there was no hesitation, he said.
He and two teammates, Odisnel Cooper and Heviel Cordoves, grabbed their passports and belongings while the rest of their group settled into their hotel rooms. They then slipped out through the fire escape and bolted down the street to avoid being spotted by their coaches. U.S. officials later confirmed the three had crossed the border in Niagara Falls, Ont.
“We had to do it if we wanted to play professional soccer. We also had to do it when we were still young,” Chang, 23, told in a phone interview from Charleston, S.C., where he, Cooper and Cordoves play for the Charleston Battery in a lower-tier professional league.
“We had already played at all levels in the national team and we realized that there was nowhere else to go,” he said in Spanish.
Dozens of top athletes – including many from Cuba – have defected during international competitions in an effort to escape persecution or to move up to a larger market.
It’s too early to tell whether the thawing relations between Cuba and the U.S., which will ease travel restrictions and may affect immigration policies, will reduce the incentive for Cuban athletes to defect while playing abroad, experts said as Ontario prepares to welcome thousands of athletes for the Pan Am and Parapan Games this summer.
When Canada last hosted the Games in Winnipeg in 1999, eight members of the Cuban delegation defected, stirring tensions between the two countries as Cuban officials accused Canadian media of inciting athletes to jump ship. When Winnipeg first staged the Games in 1967, a Cuban boxer defected shortly after winning a gold medal.
Two players from the Cuban women’s soccer team defected in 2011 after facing off with the Canadian team in Vancouver in an Olympic qualifying match. They crossed into the U.S., where they were reunited with relatives.
“It is fairly common given that these events bring people from different places in the world…They may be persecuted due to their sexual orientation, due to their political opinion and other grounds,” said Jamie Liew, an Ottawa lawyer specializing in immigration and refugee law.
“In our culture, we view athletes as being quite well off, being compensated for the work that they do, who live charmed lives, (but) it’s very different for people who may come from different countries,” she said.
Canada’s Samuel Piette (8) collides with Cuba’s Maikel Chang (10) in the first half of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying soccer match Monday, March 26, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Canada’s Samuel Piette (8) collides with Cuba’s Maikel Chang (10) in the first half of a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying soccer match Monday, March 26, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Athletes in certain sports, such as soccer and baseball, can often find better opportunities in North America, said Bruce Kidd, an expert on the history and political economy of Canadian sports at the University of Toronto.
But should travel between Cuba and the U.S. become easier in the next few years, they might not need to defect to get their big break, he said.
Many Russian athletes defected during the Cold War, when movement in and out of the Eastern Bloc was heavily controlled, Kidd said.
Since then, he said, “the freeing up of travel has significantly reduced the driver for a lot of this and Russian athletes don’t have to defect to have opportunities to train and compete in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.”
Both Liew and Chang, however, said it’s unlikely the softening relationship between Havana and Washington will affect athletes’ decisions at this time.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty, ” Liew said. “In the last few weeks there has been an increase of Cubans trying to get to the U.S. due to U.S. policy with regards to Cuban refugees. There is a healthy skepticism that anything in the near future will change in Cuba.”
Chang said he can’t predict whether Cuban athletes will try to defect during this summer’s Pan Am Games, but he doesn’t believe the new diplomatic developments will be a factor.
Fear, and concerns about leaving relatives behind, are more likely to influence athletes considering defection, he said.
“I can tell you that all my fellow Cuban players would like to be here to play professional soccer but this is a very difficult decision to make,” said Chang, who was barred from returning to Cuba for eight years but talks to his mother daily through email.
“This is a decision you cannot undo.”
Athletes seeking to stay in Canada rather than head south of the border will have to go through the same process as any other asylum-seekers, Canadian officials said.
“Canada’s refugee policies are applied consistently regardless of any special event,” a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in an email.
In the past, there were allegations that Ottawa – or NGOs acting with federal approval – actively encouraged defection, Kidd said, more to embarrass its political rivals than to bolster Canadian teams.
More recently, he said, Canada “has not gone out of its way to recruit defectors, it has simply considered and supported those who have asked for refugee status.”
– With files from Marie-Esperance Cerda