August 5 1999

Cuba News

The Miami Herald

Published Thursday, August 5, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Cuban athlete stripped of medal after drug test

By Linda Robertson, Herald Sports Writer

High jumper was positive for cocaine

WINNIPEG, Canada -- Cuban high jump great Javier Sotomayor, a national celebrity, anti-drug crusader and the pride of Fidel Castro's sports system, was stripped of his Pan Am Games gold medal Wednesday after testing positive for cocaine, the biggest drug scandal in track and field since Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Sotomayor, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, world record-holder and the only person to clear eight feet, will be suspended from competition for two years and will miss the 2000 Sydney Olympics in accordance with the doping rules of the international track federation. He can appeal the suspension.

Mario Granda, Cuba's chief of sports medicine, said Sotomayor, who was seen Tuesday night in Cuba at Castro's side during a victory rally for the baseball team, was surprised and upset by the positive drug test.

Granda said Sotomayor, 31, has passed more than 60 tests in his career and suggested that Sotomayor was the victim of sabotage.

``He is an innocent man,'' Granda said. ``We know there is a manipulation in the case of Javier Sotomayor. Whoever is responsible knows it. There are many pathways -- oral, muscular or in something that could be inhaled. We don't know what was given to the athlete in his food.''

Sotomayor is the most prominent track and field athlete to fail a drug test since Canada's Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in the 100 meters in Seoul. Great Britain's Linford Christie, the 1992 gold medalist in the 100, tested positive for a steroid on Wednesday.

Granda's initial explanation of the positive test was that Sotomayor drank tea that might have contained coca leaves to cure an upset stomach.

Dr. Eduardo de Rose, chief of the Pan American Sports Organization medical commission, said Sotomayor's urine samples contained 200 parts per million of cocaine, an amount equal to drinking one liter of tea in 30 minutes. The substance had to be ingested in the last four or five days or it would not have registered in the laboratory, de Rose said.

``In every case of cocaine, I have seen athletes use tea as a defense,'' said de Rose, recalling the positive tests of a Brazilian and a Bolivian soccer player before the 1998 World Cup.

Granda seemed to discount the possibility that tea was the culprit when he said Sotomayor drank it before he left Cuba, at least 10 days ago. A sample of the tea was analyzed at the University of Havana toxicology department and ``it was proven to be impossible for this product to leave traces of cocaine in the urine,'' Granda said.

Dubious properties

Cocaine is considered a stimulant, but its properties as a performance-enhancing drug are dubious.

``It was first used around 1895 but it is not logical to use it today because it is expensive, easy to detect and the time of stimulation is very short,'' de Rose said. ``Pharmacologically, we could find better stimulants.''

The list of banned substances athletes must avoid is an exhaustive one that includes many over-the-counter cold remedies as well as ginseng tea, which can contain high levels of ephedrine. Six cups of coffee could cause a positive test for caffeine.

Sotomayor, who is married to a former high jumper, is popular with fans and meet promoters on the European circuit, where he can earn $100,000 appearance fees.

Back home in Cuba, he is known for his loyalty to Castro and his amiable nature. He has spoken out against recreational and performance-enhancing drug abuse.

Dominant jumper

The son of a day-care worker and a sugar factory maintenance man, Sotomayor was first sent to a Cuban sports school as a prospective basketball player. But at 14, coaches made him a high jumper. By 19, he was ranked No. 5 in the world and has been the dominant jumper since. He has set three world records, the last one in 1993 when he jumped eight feet, one-half inch in Spain. He finished 11th at the 1996 Olympics following two years of injuries but was determined to win another gold in 2000.

``Sotomayor is not a child anymore,'' Mario Vazquez Raña, president of the Pan American Sports Organization, said. ``He knows anything he swallows has to be checked. This might have been a mistake by his physician. I don't know. It was a great surprise to see someone like Sotomayor in doping. A great surprise.''

Granda vigorously defended Sotomayor's reputation and said his record fourth Pan Am gold medal, soon to be relinquished, ``will remain in the hearts of the people who trust you.''

Castro blasts U.S. immigration policy

He says Cuba won't authorize a mass exodus

By Juan O. Tamayo, Herald Staff Writer

In a speech laced with implicit threats, President Fidel Castro accused Washington of violating bilateral migration accords by accepting Cuban refugees and noted that Cuba has ``several thousand small boats that could be used for escapes.

Castro also demanded that U.S. officials end the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives Cubans U.S. residency one year after they arrive, and impose ``exemplary punishments on South Florida's migrant smugglers.

Despite the ominous tone of the five-hour speech that began late Tuesday and ended early Wednesday, Castro insisted at one point that he would not retaliate by allowing another exodus of Cubans.

``Let me warn you categorically that there is not even the most remote chance that Cuba . . . would authorize the mass exodus of illegal emigrants, Castro told a large audience in the city of Matanzas.

Castro's speech came as Cuba faces its worst emigration pressures since 1994, when 34,000 were allowed to flee. The U.S. Coast Guard has repatriated to Cuba about 1,100 would-be refugees this year, and mobs have rushed to three Cuban ports since January amid rumors of an exodus.

Castro devoted almost all his speech to attacking U.S. immigration policies toward Cubans, charging that they not only tempt more Cubans to flee illegally but also violate the U.S.-Cuba migration pact signed in 1995.

Designed to end risky rafter escapes, the pact requires Washington to issue 20,000 visas a year to Cubans and return anyone stopped at sea who cannot prove a reasonable fear of persecution. Cuba is required to halt illegal departures, but not punish those returned by the U.S. Coast Guard.

U.S. officials swiftly denied Castro's charges. ``We have scrupulously fulfilled our commitments. It is flat wrong to say otherwise, said Robert Witajewski, deputy head of the State Department's Cuban Affairs Desk.

But other U.S. officials said they were worried by Castro's apparent threats and speculated that he may have been addressing the growing discontent inside Cuba.

``Is he feeling some pressure at home? Why is he so defensive, saying that he intends to keep commitments that he himself made? said one official in Washington who follows Cuba developments.

Castro, in his second marathon speech in 10 days, said his jails hold about 40 U.S. residents accused of trying to smuggle out Cubans and repeated his offer to send them to the United States for trial here.

Cuba has ``several thousand private, sport or recreational boats, he said, adding, ``it would be impossible to absolutely guarantee that some of them would not leave from somewhere along our 5,726 kilometers of coast.

``At the current pace, the United States would have no chance to intercept any of them, he said, although Coast Guard figures show the U.S. patrols manage to interdict a large majority of Cuban boat people.

Castro also hinted that any Cuban who left illegally after 1995 may never be allowed to return to Cuba to visit with relatives. Currently, Cubans who leave illegally can usually return after five years.

He also urged supporters to turn in people building illegal boats and reminded his audience of a decree he issued last month severely limiting Cubans' right to build, own or operate small boats.

Castro blamed the U.S. policies that welcome Cuban boat people on a "counterrevolutionary mafia in Miami" and maintained that "the revolution has never blocked legal departures".


Proposal to lift sanctions on Cuba defeated in Senate


Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Florida's senators and their anti-Castro allies on Wednesday beat back an attempt by their farm state colleagues to lift important sanctions against Cuba and other nations shunned by the United States.

Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack scrambled to blunt a Senate initiative that would have ended restrictions on U.S. food and medical sales to Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Libya and the Sudan.

The Floridians' drive turned back a surprisingly strong vote Tuesday night by farm state Republicans eager to open up foreign markets for agricultural goods. The Senate had voted 78-28 in favor of a proposal by Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft to allow unrestricted humanitarian sales to countries designated as ``terrorist'' nations by the U.S. government.

Ashcroft, a staunch conservative, had persuaded more than two dozen Republican colleagues to abandon their support of the existing U.S. sanctions policy toward Cuba on the grounds that it hurts American farmers and innocent civilians abroad.

His amendment would have lifted all unilateral bans on food and medical sales, and compelled the President to win congressional approval for any new sanctions except in time of war or national peril.

Ashcroft acknowledged that he was motivated by farmers' calls for relief from a proliferation of U.S. sanctions, which they say have crimped profits by closing markets abroad. The bill would, he said, assure ``that the livelihoods of U.S. farmers and ranchers do not hang in the balance when tyrants and dictators act badly.''

But supporters of the embargo against Cuba, fearing that the Senate vote would hand a political victory to Cuban President Fidel Castro, rallied Wednesday afternoon and persuaded Ashcroft to modify his bill.

Mack said the Ashcroft proposal would have effectively subsidized trading with the enemy, since the federal government gives out billions in farm support payments.

``I oppose trade with tyrants and dictators, and I emphatically oppose subsidized trade with terrorist states,'' Mack said.

Sens. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Jesse Helms of North Carolina -- key architects of the hard-line policy toward Cuba -- helped secure the change to the legislation. It now requires the Clinton administration to license food and medical sales to any ``terrorist'' state, which is current policy as far as Cuba is concerned.

Later Wednesday, the Senate approved a measure that would provide $7.4 billion in emergency relief for farmers. The vote was 89-8, with Graham and Mack opposed. The House has yet to craft a relief package.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald



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