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Cuban sports players continue to defect to the US in droves

Rob Carr, AFP |The Cuban and United States football teams take to the pitch before Saturday's Gold Cup game. Five Cuban players failed to return home after their team's 6-0 rout.

Despite the thaw in relations between Washington and Havana, Cuba has acknowledged that two baseball players defected during warm-up games two weeks ago in the United States.

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And last week four rowers at the Pan Am Games in Canada quit the team and crossed the American border.

Cuban athletes have a history of defecting, and that hasn't changed even as the United States and Cuba open embassies on Monday in the other's country, ending more than 50 years of separation.

But Cuban players and their managers are loath to discuss an act that many regard as treason despite the recent rapprochement between Washington and Havana.

"I'm not interested in talking about this," Roger Machado, manager of Cuba's baseball team, told AP on Monday at the Pan Am games in Toronto. "Talk to me about baseball."

Roberto Ramirez, Cuba's media representative at the games, declined comment about the rowers.

"We're not speaking in regard to this," he said on Sunday. "This is a right that we have."

Many Cuban athletes at the games declined to talk on the record, and those who did defended the government and criticised the defectors.

Cubans living in Canada and attending Pan Am events spoke more openly, acknowledging the pull of big money.

Cuba-born Enrique Montana showed off a foul ball he caught at the Cuba-US game. He immigrated to Canada five years ago and now has a Canadian passport.

"I think people should be able to choose the path they want," Cuba-born Enrique Montana told AP. "If people want to stay, they stay. If they want to leave, they leave."

But many declined to speak to reporters, showing the same hostility to the questions as the visiting players.

At a Gold Cup soccer game on Saturday against the United States in Baltimore, Cuba listed five players as absent and gave no reason.

"They've chosen their path," Cuba coach Raul Gonzalez said, without giving details.

Mijain Lopez, the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in greco-roman wrestling, was reported almost five years ago to have defected to the United States. It's a rumour he denied at the time, and again this week.

"I never thought of leaving Cuba," he said at the Pan Am Games. "I love my people, my country. Those guys (that defected) have betrayed our revolution. I hope they're happy. They have left something beautiful behind, which is socialism and our country's dignity. Let them do what they can in other countries. We will continue doing what we can for the revolution."

A fellow Cuban gold-medal wrestler at the Pan Am Games used a similar tone.

"I don't stick my nose in politics," said Reineris Salas, after defeating American Jake Herbert for gold in freesytle in the 86-kilogram class. "All I know is I won gold and dedicate it to my family, to Fidel Castro and all of Cuba."

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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