September 14, 2021
Carlos A. Hernández Luján and Yodeni Masó Aguila

Cuba: On the Road to Sports Reunification

The arrival of Guillermo Corzo to the men’s handball team in 2018 initiated a reunification process of the national sports movement in Cuba. Since then, around 70 athletes have been reintegrated into national teams under the purview of the National Institute for Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER).

This fact is part of a regulated process aimed at improving our country’s performance in the international arena. It takes place in the midst of an opening created by a new hiring policy that allows Cuban representatives to compete in international tournaments (mainly in collective sports such as baseball, basketball, etc., but without blocking the way for individual sports such as cycling and others). Reintegrating Corzo to the handball team was one of the first steps taken by INDER at responding to the demands of athletes, specialists, and fans. These demands called for an update to the regulations that deal with the introduction of Cuban émigré athletes playing in foreign leagues back into the national ranks.

In this way, the term “legionaries” will appear in the national press to reference the reintegration of a group of athletes that would return to Cuba for local championships or strengthen the senior teams in international events.

What Does the INDER Regulate?

According to INDER’s legal department, an employment contract contains three fundamental elements: the activity or service to be performed, the relationship of dependency and subordination between the parties, and remuneration. In May of this year, the director of the department, Ramiro Domínguez, explained in an article published in JIT Digital that the contracts are signed for a specific period of time and the player receives, in addition to their salary, other economic incentives for the results they achieve.

The employment relationship of an athlete and his club is established for one or more seasons, not for years. However, it is possibility to negotiate extensions before the original term expires. In this sense, the salary of a professional player is negotiated in the individual contract, or it can be previously established through collective agreements endorsed by representatives of the clubs and athletes.

The contract includes a monthly salary, with the option to receive incentives linked, for example, to team classification, time spent in the club, sponsorships, and other benefits according to the performance.

The athletes’ duties include training under the command of the club’s technicians, taking care of their physical condition to ensure the best possible performance and expected results, as well as participating in all matches, both official and friendly. Likewise, contracted athletes are also obligated to represent Cuba in official competitions.

The first objective of this recruitment seeks to raise the quality of athletes through their participation in top-level competitions and not their commercialization. INDER is committed to raising the quality of national events, in addition to enhancing international results, while seeking to optimize the living conditions of athletes and their families, as well as obtaining income to develop the sports movement on the Island.

As part of the principles contemplated in this procedure, all athletes that make up the national sports system have the right to accept contracts abroad. INDER will provide legal support for this.

The way to materialize these contracts is that each foreign club or team interested in a Cuban player must contact the federation of the corresponding discipline to initiate the pertinent negotiations. Similarly, the hiring responds to the strategies defined by the national commissions of each discipline and not to the personal interest of a specific athlete.

The Athletes Give Their Opinion

For Cuba, this hiring policy is not new because at the end of the 80s and during the 90s, baseball and volleyball athletes were allowed to accumulate experience in tournaments abroad, although without the monetary incentive protected in the current regulation.

With the implementation of the regulations in 2013, baseball, handball, volleyball, and basketball began to insert their main talents in leagues across America and Europe. Currently, more than 140 athletes participate in international leagues.

Names like Alfredo Despaigne, Yurisbel Gracial, and Liván Moinelo garnered success for national fans in professional baseball in Japan. Meanwhile, Arlenis Sierra won stages in cycling tours of Europe; basketball player Jasiel Rivero celebrated the triumph of the Champions League; and the wrestler Alejandro Valdés provided positive prospects in the German Bundesliga.

With the new rules ​of Antillean sport, Miguel Ángel López took this campaign to Sada Cruzeiro of Brazil after ending his performance in the Argentine clubs Gigantes del Sur (2018-2019) and UPCN San Juan (2019-2020) in search of a transition to Europe.

 “With these experiences in Argentina and Brazil, I will come out ready for a contract in Europe. I will take advantage of every opportunity, because in the future I would like to be on an Italian or Russian team,” said the Cuban transnational.

The player, a native of Cienfuegos in the south-central region of Cuba, was grateful for the years of experience in Argentina and was optimistic about the resurgence of volleyball on the island.

“I think the next cycle is going to be good for us, we have to continue growing, we have to try to reach the League of Nations and integrate all of the maturity from these years of contracts into the national team,” added López.

Another jewel of men’s volleyball, José Carlos Romero, added minutes of play in the League of Argentina and France. At 21 years old, he seeks to consolidate the position of opposite attacker, reach a higher-level club, and seek ownership with the national team.

Of those in the sport today, Raydel Martínez has shown the importance of national water polo players participating in foreign club competitions. His goals are registered with the Paris Lodron Salzburg Wasserball team from Austria.

Martinez, 31, goes to the pool in the First Division of the Austrian Bundesliga, after almost a decade of performance on the Cuban team and a brief foray as a coach with the Jamaican national team. A native of the central province of Camagüey, Martínez valued this opportunity in his career because he was able to pursue that contributed to higher-level competition.

A member of the Cuban team at the Central American event in Veracruz-2014 and the Pan-American Games in Toronto-2015, Martínez highlighted the benefits of these contracts for group sports that, such as water polo, lack international matches and have short-term national tournaments.

“We need athletes to be able to show their skills. There is a lot of talent in the country, and the international experience of playing in a club is beneficial. The diversity of polo players and styles offers another vision, and that helps raise the quality of the team,” he said.

The Cuban polo player revealed that the Austrian circuit has Italian, Hungarian, Serbian, and Croatian athletes who offer higher level rivalry.

His compatriot Giraldo Carales supports his participation in a foreign tournament, and in his two seasons playing with Waterpolo Navarra he already incorporates different experiences and technical elements in top competitions of the Spanish Premaat League.

At least 20 Cuban handball players perform in different leagues in Spain, Portugal, France, and Slovakia, in a discipline that takes Cuban players back to the old world.

With four years of experience in Europe, Reinier Taboada was satisfied playing in the first division of French handball with the Dunkerque club, after his international debut in Portugal with Artística de Avanca (2016-2018).

The 2019 emerging nations world runner-up insisted on hard work and determination to fulfill individual goals. “In Europe, I have been able to develop and show my skill, seeking to contribute to the triumphs of the national team and the club,” said Taboada.

Pedro Valdés is the current captain of the male team, and he has garnered praise at Andebol de Portugal. The Cuban handball player described as a “crucial opportunity” his time at Artística Avanca between 2015 and 2017 as well as the three seasons he played after in Lisbon.

“Since the beginning in Portugal, I have grown as a player season after season, acquiring greater technical-tactical development and better options on the pitch, as well as contributing to the performance of the national team,” he noted.

Central American head of Barranquilla 2018 and a member of the national team since 2013, he commented on the timeliness of hiring in Cuban sports, although he recognized the need for more organization and the lack of limits when facing an event.

A similar criteria was used by goalkeeper Niurkis Mora, who after excelling in international competitions, signed on to Rodríguez Cleba’s payroll in the Silver Honor Division of Spanish handball.

The bronze medalist of the Lima 2019 Pan American Games and assistant to the Kumamoto World Cup shared the joy and motivation for this opportunity, which she considered excellent for her growth as a player, after her international debut with the Cuban team in the U21 World Cup from Kasajastán in 2010.

The Reinsertion Process

When one considers a unified Cuban team, many might think of baseball due to the presence of Cuban players in the United States Major Leagues; however, handball set the standard for the reintegration of athletes who had made careers independently in other latitudes.

For the first time, INDER put aside prejudices and allowed, as an experiment, a national team to include players who had been away from the institution’s radar for a long time; this resulted in the men’s handball team winning gold in the Central American Games of Barranquilla in 2018.

Guillermo Corzo made history in the Colombian city as the first athlete reinserted after playing for almost a decade in Europe. The good omen of such a decision increased as he led the way in obtaining the gold medal, a result that had been denied to Cuba for 25 years.

In the Pan American Games in Lima 2019, other athletes returned to the team as well; Corzo was accompanied by players of the stature of Jorge Luis Paván, Yoel Cuní, and Yosdany Ríos, who contributed to the fifth continental seat.

After the Peruvian event, handball has been effective in recruiting athletes from foreign leagues, and economic motivation is compounded by allowing its athletes to compete at higher levels of play, without which it would be impossible to remain competitive in the sport.

On July 3, 2019, the Cuban Volleyball Federation announced the inclusion in its registry of players Robertlandy Simón, Michael Sánchez and Raydel Hierrezuelo. They requested re-entry on to the national team to contribute to the general development of the sport, which focuses on training and improving young talents through the high-performance system.

Of this trio, Simón would be the only volleyball player to wear the four-letter uniform once again with a message of competitiveness and power after years of playing through Italy, Brazil, and South Korea, which earned him the recognition and admiration of the entire international community.

There are several essential elements athletes must uphold in order to be incorporated back on to the ranks of the national team: not abandoning a delegation during an international tournament, no illegal departures from the country, the athlete’s disposition, and cooperation from the affiliated club.

In this regard, the technical director of Cuban men’s volleyball, Nicolás Vives, supports the reintegration of athletes in the national teams as they provide technical levels, development, and professionalism.

For Vives, the decline in Cuban collective teams responds mainly to athletes emigrating due to training without appropriate technology or conditions, the absence of national championships, and the elimination of the structured system of Sports Initiation and Improvement Schools.

Soccer, for its part, closed 2020 with the inclusion of five “legionaries” (Onel Hernández, Jorge Corrales, Carlos Vázquez, Joel Apezteguía and Marcel Hernández) in the player registry of the Cuban Soccer Association, and from now on they represent the national team.

“Representing my country is the most important thing because I have already played a lot in Europe, and now I would like to be with the national team in World Cup competitions, the Gold Cup, and other events,” said Joel Apezteguía when his inclusion on the national football team was announced.

The Cuban Baseball Federation has shown signs of changes in recent times by reinstating former Major League Baseball players such as Erisbel Arruebarruena and another group of players with performances in Caribbean and Asian leagues, including Yadir Drake, Leslie Anderson, and Yadil Mujica.

As part of the strategy for reunifying Cuban sports, the reintegration of some who have effectively left the country, trained abroad, or even descendants of Cuban emigrants, such as specific examples in soccer and hockey, gains notoriety.

Requests to represent Cuba in multiple events are increasing. INDER should streamline the process and focus on analyzing each case. If the requirements have not been violated, the opportunity to rejoin and win the right to join a national team is valid.

Cuban sports officials are being called to relax their positions and bet on re-establishing relationships with athletes and coaches from the diaspora who are currently active in foreign leagues in an attempt to increase the technical-tactical level of their national teams, as well as results worldwide.

Tokyo was the scene of the Olympic Games this past summer, where Cuba presented its third smallest delegation since 1959. After eight years of implementing the recruitment policy, six athletes with participation in foreign leagues joined the Cuban collective in the five-ring event. In parallel to hiring, the reunification process should favor the development of a high-level sports movement for the next Olympic cycle.

Yodeni Masó is a reporter and writer for the Agency Prensa Latina. He has seven years of experience in sports journalism, has directed six sports-related documentaries, and was a finalist for the 2020 AIPS Awards.

Carlos A. Hernández Luján is a journalist; he is also a host and scriptwriter for the Cuban Television Sports Program. He has 28 years of sports journalism experience and has attended 3 Olympic Games in addition to other international events.

Illustration by Maikel Martínez Pupo. You can find him @MaikelStudio @maikelmartinezpupo.