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Cubans, Minus Three, Arrive in Atlanta

July 17, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ As the Cuban volleyball players batted the ball around the vacant gym Tuesday _ sometimes getting an assist from the U.S. marshals standing in the corner _ the defection of three countrymen seemed far from their minds.

All the Cubans were thinking about was gold. Or at least that was the party line, if you’ll excuse the reference to the communist government back home.

``We are fixated on the competition,″ said Alain Roca, who was speaking Spanish but had a definite American tinge to his hairstyle: a Nike emblem shaved into the left side of his head.

Twenty Cuban athletes arrived in Atlanta on Monday, and 278 others will be joining them to round out the country’s Olympic team. But it’s a squad that won’t include three star athletes who chose the weeks leading up to the games to flee their country.

Ramon Garbey and Joel Casamayor slipped away two weeks ago while the boxers were training in Mexico. Both men were stalwarts on the magnificent Cuban team, Casamayor having won a gold medal at the Barcelona Games four years ago and Garbey capturing the world championship in 1993.

A week after those defections rocked the Cubans, the country’s best starting pitcher, Rolando Arrojo, deserted the baseball team in Georgia during its pre-Olympic tour.

All three athletes are expected to pursue lucrative professional careers in the United States.

``We don’t have a clear explanation why it happened,″ said Ricardo Vantes, a member of the national volleyball team for 11 years. ``Had this happened a ways before the Olympics, we would have though it was only the money. But for it to happen now, we think it may just be political, to draw attention to the political situation between our two countries.″

To Vantes, the thought of fleeing one’s homeland is repulsive. He can’t understand how money alone would be enough to make someone leave everything behind.

``Maybe they had troubles with their family. Maybe they had trouble with the politics. Maybe they had trouble with their sports,″ he said. ``As for me, I feel very satisfied where I am. In order to abandon one’s country, one has to think about abandoning one’s mother.″

A group of Cuban athletes strolling through the Olympic Village were wary of discussing the situation, especially with an American reporter.

``I have nothing to say for the United States,″ one woman said scornfully.

But Milaida Enrique Parrado, a center on the Cuban women’s basketball team, didn’t mind speaking her mind when asked how the recent defections had affected her country.

``It’s a betrayal,″ she said. ``For those of us who enter athletics at an early age, everything is free, everything is taken care of. It’s very hard when someone leaves once they’ve grown up, especially with all the problems we’ve had during the special period.″

The ``special period″ is a distinctly Cuban term for the hardships the country has endured since the Soviet Union fell apart and the U.S. embargo transformed common household items into luxuries.

But to the casual observer, the athletes seem largely unaffected by the situation back home. As the volleyball team arrived for a practice at a women’s college in suburban Atlanta, most of the players were decked out in Oakley sunglasses and snappy uniforms provided by a Japanese company, Mizuno.

For coach Juan Diaz, the major concern was the buses that were running behind schedule and cutting into his team’s practice time.

``The defections do not affect me at all,″ Diaz said. ``Three, six, nine people can leave and still it would not affect me. I don’t expect any defections from my team.″

There didn’t appear to be any special precautions taken with the Cuban volleyball team, which was escorted by four U.S. marshals who watched the practice from a corner of the gym and even helped retrieve errant balls that came their way. Reporters and photographers were welcomed inside.

On the other hand, the baseball team _ minus Arrojo _ wouldn’t reveal where its practices were being held. With the World Series champion Atlanta Braves playing right down the street, a source said the team was working out on a baseball field within the Olympic Village instead of venturing out like the volleyball squad.

``I don’t believe there’s any extra vigilance,″ Parrado said. ``Whoever is going to leave is going to leave, whoever is going to stay is going to stay _ with or without someone guarding us.″

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