Are Cuban Sports Truly Changing?

Ronald Quiñones

The fans are happy with the changes allowing for professional contracts.
The fans are happy with the changes allowing for professional contracts.

HAVANA TIMES — A few short weeks ago, whenever you asked anyone on the street whether they thought Cuban sports were actually changing, it didn’t take long to hear the negative. One had the impression one was talking to one of the island’s more renowned cartoon characters, Elpidio Valdes, and hearing his unforgettable catch-phrase every time: “You’d have to see it to believe it, pal!”

Well, it seems that, suddenly, one straw broke the camel’s back. I say this because today’s developments haven’t come about without slip-ups, Hollywood-like escapades, players “tendering their resignations” and even direct demands, most voiced in hallways, but some courageously addressed to many officials, who would put on an angry face whenever they heard any complaints, as though they were being asked to give up part of their own salaries.

Now, to the surprise of the common Cuban, the demands of fans, and the island’s athletes themselves, have finally made it to paper: the freedom to enter into contracts with foreign teams, to collect the entirety of their individual and team prizes, and to earn better salaries in general, in dependence of their performance.

Before, only athletics, volleyball, judo, boxing, wrestling and chess enjoyed some kind of monetary “privilege”, the small sum of 15 percent of the earnings for the athlete and 4 percent for the coach, in the case of individual sports. In team sports, not more than 50 percent of the earnings had to be distributed among all members.

When it came to salaries, Olympic gold medalists received a 300-dollar-a-month salary, while silver and bronze medalists earned 200 and 100 dollars a month, respectively. World championship gold, silver and bronze medalists received 150, 100 and 50 dollars a month, respectively.

That said, even though Cuban boxer Felix Savon won three Olympic gold medals and six world championships, he only got paid for one of those medals. Now, non-retired athletes get a better deal: they get paid for every medal they earn. It is said they will also get compensation when they retire, but this hasn’t been explained yet.

Mijain Lopez
Mijain Lopez

Right now, therefore, many are asking themselves how much someone like Mijain Lopez would be earning, a two-time Olympic champion and four-time world champion, someone who has also won two Olympic silver medals.

In addition to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) earnings, which are easy to calculate (1,400 CUC), Lopez would be getting paid for his three Pan-American titles (1,250 Cuban pesos each) and receiving his Cuban peso incentives for his participation in the Olympics and world championships (some 1,400 Cuban pesos).

Needless to say, though this is an extremely high salary by Cuban standards, it is far from obscene when compared to what his counterparts around the world make, and even to what some Cubans take in (and not precisely through the sweat of their brows).

The weekend following the announcement of these measures, most opinions on the street coincided on one thing: that justice had finally been done (or was beginning to be done). Below are a number of the opinions voiced in response to the new policy:

Alejandro (driver): “I think we need to be a little quicker about these things. They handed out the hats so late that they may not find many willing heads now. Had they continued in their hard-headed ways, we would have been left without a single top level athlete.”

Yuri (secretary): “It’s a very good decision, I’m happy about it. I hope all of the country’s workers also begin to receive decent salaries, as they are the ones who keep the country going, who shoulder most of the economic and social burdens.”

Roberto: “I believe it is a very fair decision, they deserve it. We will no longer be persecuting Cubans who choose to play on foreign baseball teams. We also want to see our players playing in major leagues on TV. But they should also do the same for doctors, engineers and other professionals in the country, they also need improvement in their lives.”

Alejo (medical doctor): “I still think athletes should be further down the list of priorities. We’re really not helping ourselves encouraging inflation by bolstering a non-productive sector. When all is said and done, this is a small cosmetic change, something they know will make people very happy. The problem of salaries in Cuba is so serious that they had to do something, and the easiest and cheapest thing to do was to give a small sector more elbow room. Most people have the same problems athletes had.”

Orlando: Of course, other professionals could feel their work is being underestimated. This is fair, but it’s still only letting a bit of steam out of a cooker that couldn’t take any more pressure. My question is: do we have to do what athletes have been doing in recent years (break the rules, quit, have a poor performance) to get their attention?

Alexis (carpenter): “You crawl before you walk and you walk before you run. Now everyone wants to be paid better. These athletes are filling up stadiums and that’s the money that will be going into their salaries. I know there are other professionals who contribute a lot to society, but we can’t solve all our problems at once. Let’s wait and hope each of the country’s sectors begins to improve, one by one.”

Alfredo Despaigne played last season for the Campeche Pirates in the Mexican professional league.
Alfredo Despaigne played last season for the Campeche Pirates in the Mexican professional league. Photo:

Despaigne’s Experiences

Michel Enriquez made history some months ago when he became the first Cuban baseball player to play in a professional league without having had to retire from the sport in Cuba. His contract with the Mexican team Piratas de Campeche (“The Campeche Pirates”) was met with great expectations, not only in the two countries involved, but in many places around the world as well.

Ultimately, Enriquez was unable to shine on Mexican soil due to an injury. When Cuban players Alfredo Despaigne and Yordanis Samon were hired by the same team, things took a different turn. Samon returned to Cuba a week later because, according to the Pirates front office, they were looking to him for a leadoff batter, not a power hitter. The flip side was his compatriot from Granma, Despaigne, sought for his power, and who set a new precedent.

Despaigne concluded his stint in the Mexican Baseball League with a .338 average, having recorded 45 hits (including six doubles and eight home-runs) in 133 at-bats. He also drove in 24 runs and had an OBP of 0.364, slugging average of 0.564, and an OPS of 928.

The right-fielder made a big impact in Mexico, where he was considered the year’s top acquisition, despite having arrived to the season rather late. As for his salary, he retained 80 percent of the earnings (eight of the 10 thousand dollars agreed to), which is the opposite of what had happened with sports contracts before then.

In Cuba, Despaigne’s effort in the Mexican league was not given the promotion he deserved in the media. This did not stop baseball aficionados from evaluating his performance upon the player’s return, and to comment about this unprecedented experience:

Jesse Gomez (computer engineer): “He’s one of the great ones. I hope all Cuban baseball players get the opportunity to shine in any foreign league.”

Jose Hermida: “I am very happy these types of arrangements are happening now, and I hope this will keep Cuban players from emigrating. The problem is that the difference in salaries between the MLB and the Mexican League is tremendous, and though these new measures may help, the Majors will always be a temptation for many. I hope we stop losing sports talents this way.”

Alfredo Carrazana (medical doctor): The deals with the MLB are different, but, someone as intelligent as he doesn’t need to go off to the MLB. I hope more contracts with other players are signed next year.”

Julio (teacher): It was hard to speak of patriotic feelings before they took these steps. One should be able to make use of their talent wherever they wish and to return to home and simply get taxed for one’s earnings.”

A New Era Begins

Opinions aside, the truth of the matter is that this radical new measure marks a turning point for Cuban sports.

I don’t think the migration of baseball talents will be considerably reduced by this, but athletes in other disciplines may feel a greater incentive to stay in Cuba, where the money earned goes a lot farther.

My only hope is that we don’t see a replay of 1998, when Cuba’s national volleyball team was authorized to enter into a contract with Italy and the whole tape was rewound when some players returned with injuries.

We’ll likely be seeing these kinds of things again, but, if we throw out the baby with the bathwater again, we’ll be truly hard pressed to return to the days of glory Cuba enjoyed back in the days of the socialist bloc. The times have indeed changed.