Coaches and trainers have been working all over the world since the
breakup of the Soviet Union, but not everyone's happy about it.
By Kevin Baxter and Chris Kraul, Times Staff Writers
July 28, 2007
RIO DE JANEIRO — Watching Cuba's national baseball team play can be a
little like watching a supermodel walk down a runway: They're both
elegant, full of confidence, and though they never look like they're in
a rush, they eventually get where they're going.
So when Cuba began to stir in the final inning of its Pan American Games
opener with Panama there was no doubt a game-winning rally was coming.
But as the dangerous Ariel Pestano strode to the plate with a runner on
first, Panama Manager Alfonso Urquiola didn't turn away. Instead he
turned toward his infield and made sure shortstop Avelino Asprilla was
positioned exactly where Pestano hit the ball a few pitches later,
starting a game-ending double play.
Good scouting? More like a good memory, because Urquiola, a former
standout infielder and one of Cuba's most successful managers, once
coached Pestano on the Cuban national team.
Now he, along with three coaches on Panama's staff, are among the
several hundred Cuban coaches and trainers working with developing
sports programs in more than 50 nations across the globe.
"For us, it's a matter of pride," said Pedro Cabrera, press director for
Cuba's national institute of sports, who managed a smile over Urquiola's
moxie. "We don't like to lose. But we do like it when the managers we
have abroad have [success]."
In that case, there has been a lot to like since Cuba first began
sending coaches — and for a while, athletes — abroad in exchange for
much-needed goods and currency under a program organized 15 years ago.
Twenty of the countries participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for
example, had Cuban coaches or trainers in their delegations. And after
the Athens Games in 2004, Algeria and Argentina sought Cuba's help.
Malaysia recently asked for assistance teaching physical education, Laos
hired Cuban coaches to prepare for the Southeast Asian Games and the
Dominican Republic invited 46 Cubans to coach sports such as swimming
"The Cuban coaches have been a great help for Dominican sports, a great
asset," said Luis Mejia, president of the Dominican Olympic Committee.
Angola has signed a protocol of cooperation and Brazil has turned its
baseball training program over to three Cuban coaches. Last March,
Nigerian sports minister Bala Bawa Kaoje became one of the latest to fly
to Havana, looking for coaches to prepare his nation for this year's
Even staunch U.S. ally Britain has gotten into the act. When the Glenn
McCrory International School of Boxing opened in Newcastle last fall, a
Cuban flag hung not far from the Union Jack to welcome Cuban coaches
Alberto Perez and Alberto Gonzalez, who were given permission to work at
the club as part of an agreement with Cubadeportes, the government
agency tasked with promoting — and selling — Cuban coaches and athletes
around the world.
Although Cuba had been offering coaches — as well as doctors and
teachers — to countries in the developing world for years, it wasn't
until the economy plunged after the breakup of the Soviet Union that
Cuba decided to make money from its sports program. So in November 1992
it created Cubadeportes to market the sale of athletes, coaches,
sporting goods — even baseball cards — internationally.
Over time, Cabrera said, Cubans have gone to work in more than 110
countries with a record 6,300 coaches and trainers deployed to 51
nations last year. In addition to baseball, Cuban expertise is most
often sought in track and field, boxing and the martial arts, with Cuban
coaches sharing the techniques they learned through decades of
cooperation with Eastern Bloc sports programs.
"When you first look at [Cuba's] impact on sport, [it] was bringing in
all these trainers, predominately from the Soviet and Eastern European
countries," said Paula J. Pettavino, author of "Sport in Cuba," a
detailed examination of Cuba's sports program. "Then it started to
switch and there's a point at which [Cuba] is now sending them out. And
the Cubans are now training everybody else."
The coaches are generally provided room, board and a small salary by the
host nation, which also pays Cubadeportes for their services. But
Cabrera said the prices and salaries can vary widely, with wealthy
nations such as Japan and Italy expected to pay more than Ecuador or
Ghana. And still others, such as Venezuela, have traditionally paid for
their Cuban assistance with low-cost oil.
"In some cases, yes," Cabrera answered when asked if Cuba profits from
its sporting exchanges. "But that's not the fundamental reason why we do
it. The satisfaction is to have the possibility to cooperate, in a
humble way, with the development of sports in developing countries."
The program hasn't been without controversy, however. In Panama, where
five of the 10 teams in the country's regional amateur league are
coached by Cubans, local baseball people have charged the imports with
both spreading political ideology and making Panama's coaches and
players less desirable to professional teams, igniting a furor that has
even drawn in the U.S. Embassy.
"They are using baseball to advance their ideology," said former major
leaguer Omar Moreno, a Panamanian. "But the bottom line is they don't
produce any major league prospects. The best baseball in the world is
what I learned, U.S.-style."
So Moreno, 54, has taken matters into his own hands, building a youth
baseball system from the ground up with financial help from the embassy
and Major League Baseball. With that backing, Moreno's foundation
started a league that now offers free instruction for more than 400
youths from poor neighborhoods around Panama City as well as in Moreno's
hometown of Puerto Armuelles in western Panama.
The embassy, through spokesman Gavin Sundwall, said its support was not
"This is not counter-Cuba," he said. "It's a way to further
understanding and build better relations between countries."
David Salayandia, sports director of TV Channel 9 of Panama and a local
sports agent, isn't so sure.
"The U.S. Embassy isn't doing its job if it isn't alert to what the
Cubans are up to," he said.
But Salayandia has his own ax to grind with the Cubans and the team
owners who brought them to Panama. The 25 Cuban coaches in Panama's top
national league, he says, are taking both jobs and experience away from
locals, which stunts the development of Panamanian baseball.
"A big reason there are so many is that they come cheap, about $5,000 a
year plus expenses," he said.
Cabrera refused to enter the fray, calling the matter "an internal
problem for the Panamanians." But, he added, "in my sincere opinion,
with the concepts of Urquiola, the Panamanian team is getting better."
Besides, he pointed out, if the Cuban coaches are so troublesome, why do
so many countries continue to line up to get them?
"For us," Cabrera said "it's a matter of pride to have so many people
helping out abroad. Sometimes what happens is what happened here [and we
lose]. That doesn't bother us. It makes us proud."
Baxter reported from Rio de Janeiro and Kraul from Panama City.