January 13, 1998

In focus: Defectors revel in freedom

By Tom Weir, USA TODAY

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica - Having survived four days at sea on Spam and sugar water, Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez got to savor his first taste of democracy Thursday.

"In the short time I've been here, I've been enjoying democracy and freedom," Hernandez told reporters in his new homeland of Costa Rica, which has accepted him and six other defectors who washed ashore in the Bahamas. "Here, nobody can tell me what to say. It has changed my life already."

After arriving late Wednesday in Costa Rica, Hernandez, his fellow defectors and sports agent Joe Cubas spent Thursday making visits to Costa Rican authorities. At the department of immigration, they applied for the quicker process of seeking refugee status rather than political asylum.

They also had an afternoon meeting with the minister of labor, Farid Ayales, who soon hopes to pit the fast-growing collection of Cuban baseball talent in Costa Rica against a team of Costa Rican all-stars. It's anticipated that all seven defectors will receive Costa Rican passports soon, perhaps by Monday.

Traveling with Orlando Hernandez was catcher Alberto Hernandez, a defensive specialist. Already in Costa Rica were three other Cuban defectors who would have been in line to join Cuba's national team: catcher Francisco Santiesteban, center fielder Osmani Santana and right-handed pitcher Juan Medina.

The latter three had played for Cuba's "preselection team," the last step before being named to the national team that has won the last two Olympic gold medals in baseball.

Santiesteban said he has been in the Cuban national baseball system since he was 14 and had caught games for Orlando Hernandez and Hernandez's half-brother Livan, the 1997 World Series MVP for the Florida Marlins.

Regarding the issue of Orlando Hernandez's age, which is certain to hamper negotiations with major league clubs, Santiesteban refuted reports that his former teammate is 32, instead of the 28 he claims.

"It's not possible," said Santiesteban, explaining that Cuban officials often add years to the ages of their players on rosters as a tactic to reduce the interest of pro teams.

"No one complains about it because you don't want to cause trouble and be removed from the team," he said.

Even prominent Cuban players are paid salaries equivalent to about only $20 a month, but being on the national team affords them opportunities to acquire goods during trips abroad. After one trip to Millington, Tenn., for instance, Cuban national team members were seen checking TV sets with their airline baggage.

Orlando Hernandez promised to render the age argument moot.

"To those who say I'm 32 years old, not 28, all I can say is that, when the time comes, I'll show on the playing field how good my arm is."

During his years as the winningest pitcher on Cuba's national team, Hernandez demonstrated such ability often. Santiesteban cited a game played shortly before Hernandez was banned for life from baseball in the wake of his half-brother's defection, in which he made good on a promise to throw a two-hitter.

The half-brothers have had a philosophical parting of the ways. Livan Hernandez publicly questioned why Orlando didn't accept humanitarian visas granted by the USA for him, his girlfriend, and Alberto Hernandez.

"Livan has made his personal decision (to move to the USA), and we have to respect that," Orlando Hernandez said. "And I made mine, and we have to respect that."

Orlando Hernandez also reiterated that his primary motivation to go to Costa Rica was because that nation was willing to accept all seven defectors, unlike the USA, and not just because he will become a free agent by living in Costa Rica.

"There was no reason to leave five people behind," he said of his friends, who would have faced possible deportation from the Bahamas to Cuba under an agreement between the two nations regarding illegal defectors. "We have to stay together. We're all going to be enjoying the same freedoms together."

The defection, aboard a wooden boat with a home-made sail and four oars, was the brainchild of Juan Carlo Romero, who built the craft. His wife, Geidy Gonzales, also was among the defectors.

"When we asked Orlando, he was in a hurry to go," Gonzales said. "He was into it."

Hearing Hernandez explain the abuse he took from supporters of Fidel Castro's government, it's easy to understand why.

"After Livan's defection, they punished me for life. People were throwing rocks at me," Hernandez said.

In the days before their Dec. 26 departure, secrecy was crucial, he said.

"If we made any comment that we were getting ready to leave the country, they could have caught us and put us in jail for no less than four years."

Hernandez said he has talked to his two daughters, aged 7 and 2, and they understand why he left.

"My oldest is happy and the people of Cuba are happy because they want to see us play baseball, and in Cuba, we will never play baseball again," he said. "My oldest daughter asked me to try to get her out of Cuba as fast as I can."


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