Cuban soccer defector: Freedom worth the risk
After Cuban soccer player Reinier Alcantara left the team hotel in
Washington, D.C., he ran as fast as he could and with the little English
he knew told a cab driver to ``Drive me far. . . . Go far, far, far.''
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
Reinier Alcantara knew, even before he boarded the flight from Cuba to
Washington, D.C., last week, that he wouldn't be using his return
ticket. He hatched the plan to defect months ago and worked extra hard
to make the roster for last Saturday's World Cup qualifier against the
United States because he figured that would be his chance to escape a
life that was getting increasingly more frustrating and depressing.
The only question was when he would make the break. Team security was
tight, following the defections of seven members of the Cuban Under-23
soccer team in Tampa in March. The phone lines in the players' rooms at
the Doubletree Hotel were disconnected, their passports and visas were
collected by a team official upon arrival in the nation's capital, and
coaches watched their every move.
But then the moment arrived. It was Thursday, early evening, and the
team had just returned from practice. They were milling around the
lobby, waiting for dinner, and the coaches walked into the gift shop.
Alcantara got up from a sofa, walked down a hallway, found a service
door, checked over his shoulder, stepped outside and sprinted toward
RUN TO FREEDOM
He ran, and ran, and ran. Six to eight blocks. At full speed, looking
over his shoulder the whole way, worried that someone would snag him and
deliver him back to the Cuban delegation. Finally, when he realized
nobody was chasing him, Alcantara stopped at a corner, caught his
breath, and flagged down a taxi.
He speaks very little English, but he used what he knew when he got into
the taxi cab. ''Drive me far,'' he told the driver, motioning with his
hand. ``Go far, far, far.''
They drove for nearly half an hour and Alcantara, a 26-year-old forward,
got off at a McDonald's. He asked the cabbie if he could borrow his
cellphone to make a call. He called a friend in New Jersey, told him
where he was, and the friend drove down to meet him.
On Friday morning, Alcantara met up with another friend, who took him
shopping for food, clothing and toiletries, and drove home with him to
Atlanta, where he will officially seek asylum and begin his new life. On
Saturday night, he watched on television as Cuba lost 6-1 to the U.S. He
felt bad for his teammates, but said he had no regrets. ''I love my
team, but this is my life, and my future, and I had to do this,'' he said.
Alcantara had no idea that as he was getting over the most challenging
day of his life, his teammate, Pedro Faife, was bolting from the team
hotel back in D.C. with relatives, who drove him to their home in
Orlando. The two hadn't spoken as of Monday morning, but Alcantara
planned to get in touch later in the day.
''I feel so happy to finally be here, free to pursue my dreams,''
Alcantara said by cellphone Monday morning, on his way to Miami for a
series of interviews with Spanish-language media. ``I've been dreaming
of this for a long, long time, and I just had to wait for the right
opportunity. It was a very scary decision, and I was nervous that first
night, but thanks to the support of friends, and so many great people in
this country, I am feeling much calmer.''
Alcantara comes from Pinar del Rio, and said his neighborhood was
devastated by the recent hurricanes, making an already difficult life
unbearable. He said his home suffered roof damage and other houses
nearby were in ruins. The government made promises to help, but there
didn't seem to be any help in sight. When he entered a grocery store
Friday, his eyes welled with tears.
''It's beautiful to see the amount and quality of food here, the
choices, the possibilities,'' he said. ``Meanwhile, people are hungry in
Cuba, scraping to get by, obsessing about where they'll find dinner. I
have to be careful with all this great food. If I keep eating, I won't
be able to run anymore and I'll get out of shape.''
Alcantara stressed that he will always love Cuba, and has only warm
feelings toward his teammates and coaches. But he felt ''trapped'' on
the island, and had traveled enough through soccer to realize what life
was like in other places. He was in East Rutherford, N.J., and Houston
in 2007 for the Gold Cup, and the thought of defecting crossed his mind
then, but he said family situations back home prevented him from doing so.
This time, nothing was holding him back. He is not married and has no
children. His parents had no idea he planned to stay, and as of Monday
he hadn't spoken to them yet. They don't have a telephone, so they're
hard to reach, but also, Alcantara said he wanted to wait a few days to
let the news sink in because he knows how hard it will hit them.
''I'm sure my parents are devastated with my decision, but in time,
they'll realize this was the best thing,'' he said. ``There is no future
for me in Cuba, no hope. You can dream there, but your dreams can't come
true. It's a dead end for athletes, and for people of all professions.
We hear promises, but they're never fulfilled. Here, you dream and if
you work hard enough, and sacrifice, your dreams can be realized.''
Alcantara's goal is to play professional soccer, something he is not
allowed to do under the Cuban regime. He knows it won't be easy. He
spent the past 48 hours fielding calls from Cuban soccer players who
defected over the past few years -- Yaikel Perez, Yenier Bermudez,
Yordanny Alvarez, Lester More, and Osvaldo Alonso, who grew up with him,
defected last year in Houston during the World Cup, plays for the
Charleston Battery and last week was named the United Soccer Leagues'
2008 Rookie of the Year.
''Of course, it's a little lonely to be starting all over so far from
the people you love,'' he said. 'But it gives me courage and hope to
talk to all those other guys, to Yaikel and Lester and Osvaldo, guys who
did what I did, who made the same sacrifice. Every one of them told me
the same thing. They said, `It won't be easy. There will be pain. But be
patient, work very hard, and everything will work out.' I believe them.
I feel, for the first time, that my future will be bright.''