By Tom Weir, USA TODAY
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
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
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
"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
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
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."