Orlando Ortega, a Cuban athletic hurdler, recently fled his teammates in Spain and defected from his homeland, claiming that his only hope was emigration to Florida and a reunion with his mother.
This comes shortly before a team of domestic Cuban baseball legends embark on a tour of America where they are set to face the countrymen who illegally ditched their country for a shot at fame and fortune in the MLB.
Cuban sportsmen have a history of defection in recent decades. Bound by an amateur system, rigorously monitored and marshalled abroad, used for propaganda purposes whilst receiving a pitiful salary at home, the lure of the American Dream is too great for many. Defection means illegal flight from the homeland and the potential ramifications this may entail for family members left behind.
After the 1959 revolution and Fidel Castro’s communist takeover, defections from Cuba to Florida (a mere 90 miles) skyrocketed. Many of these people were staunch Batistas and anti-communists either intent on escaping a life of persecution or determined to form a militia on the American mainland that could ultimately retake Cuba.
However to suggest that covert emigration from Cuba is a fairly recent phenomenon is misleading. The island’s proximity to the American mainland and the often harsh and debilitating working and living conditions for its citizens have ensured this is not so.
In the early twentieth century, when emigration to America from across the globe was rife, Cubans flocked to Miami in their thousands. Escaping plantation life or the poorly paid manufacturies on the island, they sought to establish indigenous industries in the USA such as cigar making and textile works.
During the 19th century, Cuban nationalists fled to America to escape Spanish colonial rule, establishing a base for operations in the democratic heartland from which the independence movement was driven.
Prior to this, in the 17th and 18th centuries, both mestizos and black slaves fleeing a life of poverty and imprisonment on Cuban sugar plantations made for Texas and Louisiana which were Spanish possessions at the time. Their lives rarely entailed the dramatic improvement they had wished for, yet the desperation to escape led them into making long and treacherous journeys into the unknown.
All of these defections, unsanctioned population movements diverging wildly in size, have had significant impacts on Cuba itself and the final destination of settlement. There are nearly 2 million Cuban Americans who have made important cultural, economic and sporting contributions to their country. Others have simultaneously turned to lives of crime, helping to decrease internal security whilst leading to inter-ethnic tensions in certain parts of the country.
Perhaps the most important emigration from Cuba to America, however, was no defection. In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Captain General of the Spanish Treasure Fleet, set out for Florida on a mission of exploration and colonization.
Abandoning a life of luxury on Cuba – the special preserve of all Spanish colonial officials at the time – Aviles destroyed the French Huguenot settlement of Fort Caroline on the Florida coast, slaughtered the majority of its inhabitants and founded Saint Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the USA.
A first permanent bastion for Christianity in the USA, Aviles could not have been aware of the legacy he created by abandoning a life of ease in search of further glory.
It is ironic that for most Cuban defectors, escaping a world of unending poverty and limited opportunities, their contributions to American society are seldom recognised. But that is not to say that they have not stood the test of time.