HAVANA TIMES — The last months of 2013 were very eventful for Cuban sports: we saw the debate surrounding the return of a Cuban team to the Caribbean Baseball Series, the official debut of professional boxing on the island (hosting a semi-professional match) and, perhaps most importantly, the approval of a new form of remuneration for athletes, trainers and specialists in the field.
This last development is of great significance for, even though it will likely not put an end to exodus of Cuban athletes, it is an acknowledgement of the efforts of the great majority, in careers that demand great sacrifices and are often short lived.
The measure, which has prompted the most diverse reactions (many of which were published here), will come into effect fully in January of 2014 and, like everything else in life, we will get a sense of its true scope once it has been set in motion.
The so-called “collateral effects” of this have begun to be seen in recent months, particularly in the world of boxing and its World Series.
When the media announced the change, authorities clarified that it would be applied only to baseball in 2013 (with the start of the 2013-2014 season), and that all other sports would have to wait until January to benefit from the new legislation.
The first warning sign came from the field of boxing. In the World Series (WSB), every boxer receives payment for each fight, in dependence of their performance (victory, defeat and the type of victory or defeat). In the case of Cubans, since the law is not to be implemented until 2014, they continued to fight “for the sake of it” (though they did see some money), and this bothered more than one person.
In early December, London Olympic champion Robeisy Ramirez and bronze medalist Yasniel Toledo refused to fight in a match against Russia held in Havana, alleging they had not yet been paid for their previous matches in Mexico the first weekend of the WSB.
The two were replaced by other boxers for the match. According to the chief trainer, Rolando Acebal, neither Ramirez nor Toledo were sanctioned. Rather, they were given “warnings” and could well reappear on the ring in January – when they are supposedly to receive the payment they deserve.
This first slip-up surrounding the new measure is a warning message that ought to steer decisions in 2014, as it appears it will no longer be possible to deny any athlete a performance-based payment and, should that occur, the government would face a serious credibility issue.
As in previous occasions, we could see delays in these payments stemming from the financial restrictions the US government places on any monetary transaction with Cuba. Sports authorities, however, will have to find ways to honor their commitments, lest they witness yet another massive talent drain.
AN EXPERT OPINION
An economist consulted for this article was of the opinion that, though the new legislation has much social merit and is every bit fair, it could bring about serious problems for the Cuban economy, which is already seriously depressed.
“Imagine the same thing that’s occurred in the past happens again, that the money to pay a volleyball player, for example, gets stuck somewhere because the bank in question doesn’t want to transfer it to Cuba, fearing sanctions from the US Treasury Department.”
“The Cuban government would then have to pay that money out of its own pocket so as to honor its commitment, funneling money aimed at transportation, education, healthcare or any other sector of the many with unsolved problems in Cuba today, to sports.
“This could result in greater discontent in the rest of society. The other option is to fall back into the same old habits: the financial and moral debts with athletes. This is why many have decided to leave the country, and that situation could well repeat itself now,” said Alberto Concepción, currently a teacher.
In this connection, the economist believes that, apparently, the most viable option is for athletes to collect the payment for the awards they receive at the competition venue, something that would alter the traditional modus operandi of the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER).
Traditionally, an INDER official or the head of the sports delegation has been responsible for transferring payments to Cuba or to collect the award, to bring it back to Cuba and distribute the corresponding sums.
To leave these transactions in the hands of the athletes themselves is, in some way, to lose control over the situation (at least from the point of view of the Cuban government), for the athletes in question would know exactly how much is due and could not be manipulated later. This may well be, however, the only way in which things can fall into place: that everyone receives payment at the opportune moment.
This variant has been used in the world of chess with excellent results, for both the player and authorities, and the mechanism could well be implemented in the near future. The only times players have not received payment for their matches has been when the tournament has been held in the United States, and the response of these sportspeople has been to refuse to take part in matches there, or to do so exclusively out of a personal interest in visiting the country, reuniting with a relative or directly requesting political asylum.
REALITIES AND PERSPECTIVES
It appears that, so far, everything is well in the world of baseball, the first sport where the measure was implemented. Baseball authorities, however, have relied exclusively on the Cuban peso economy to fulfill their word.
Though we’ve heard no complaints about the new payment mechanism in baseball so far, the situation might change in February, when Cuba’s Villa Clara team is to participate in the Caribbean Series and players are to demand their due, hard-currency earnings, like their colleagues from other countries.
The workings of this new system will be put to the test before then, in January, when several sport competitions in Cuba and abroad are to be held.
These include the World Cycling Cup to be held in Guadalajara Mexico from January 17 to 19, two World Boxing Series matches (January 11 in Azerbaijan and January 18 in Havana), the prestigious Wijk Ann Zee chess tournament (Holland, January 10-26), and the Tachira Cycling Tournament (January 10-19).
This is what’s on Cuba’s official sports calendar for January, but Cuban athletes could well be invited to participate in other sporting events or a classifying tournament for the Central American and Caribbean games to be held in Veracruz, whose dates have not yet been decided.
This is why 2014 could be a very important year for Cuban sports. The hopes of a better life awakened in the members of all Cuban sports teams must be directly translated into concrete benefits for each individual, whatever mechanism is used to achieve this. We will have to wait and see how a system that has worked in a very different way over the last 50 plus years (particularly from the 90s on) fares after these changes are fully implemented.