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Exile Plane Flies Over Stadium, Urging Defection Of Cuban Baseball Team

December 2, 1993

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ A small plane trailing a banner saying ″Cubans Defect Now″ flew over a stadium hours before Cuba’s national baseball team played Wednesday against American major leaguers.

It was the latest attempt by Cuban exiles to encourage the defection of Cuban athletes and officials at the regional athletic championships in Puerto Rico. Forty have defected and 32 of them have sought political asylum, officials said. Five of the defectors sought asylum Wednesday.

The plane flew over Hiram Bithorn Stadium Wednesday afternoon as the Cuban team was to have begun practice for the exhibition game.

The banner, the same used in a similar flyover near the beginning of the Nov. 19-30 championships, gave a telephone number of an exile group for the athletes to call.

None of the Cuban baseball players have defected, and spokesmen from the the Rescue Legion exile group listed on the banner told The Associated Press that no athletes had called in by evening.

Cuba lost 4-3 to the squad from the Puerto Rican Winter League, which includes U.S. major leaguers and hopefuls. Many in the sold-out crowd of 20,000 screamed ″Stay Here 3/8″ as the Cubans walked off the field.

Exiles have expressed hopes that members of Fidel Castro’s top baseball squad, which has won 100 straight amateur games, would join the flow of Cubans escaping their Communist homeland. Major league scouts have said at least six players are big-league caliber.

The defecting Cubans have cited a lack of freedom and Cuba’s economic depression as reasons for leaving, and said many of their colleagues wanted to follow them but had obligations to families left behind.

Under a 1966 act of Congress, nearly all Cubans making it to American shores, including the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, are granted residency.

A former Puerto Rican basketball player and coach said the exiles’ actions could cost this U.S. commonwealth support in its drive to host the 2004 Olympics. ″It could (also) affect Cuba’s future participation of Cuba in events here,″ Armandito Torres said.

Wednesday’s asylum-seekers included basketball star Andres Gibert, said Julito Labatut, a leader of the Rescue Legion. Gibert, a 6-foot-6 forward, led Cuba to a silver medal at the Central American and Caribbean Games, which ended Tuesday.

By Wednesday morning, most of the roughly 900-member Cuban delegation had left Puerto Rico. The only ones left behind were some security guards and the baseball team, which was playing a professional winter league team Wednesday night.

Cuban officials had complained to organizers of the athletic competition that exiles were attempting to lure away the athletes to embarrass President Fidel Castro.

Cuba’s official Granma newspaper on Tuesday published a harsh letter from loyalist athletes, calling their defecting colleagues ″babies″ and pledging to remain with Cuba ″for all time.″

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