Winds of Change Blowing in Cuba
In an unprecedented step, Cuba’s state-run television broadcast a sports documentary that included interviews with baseball players who defected to play in the U.S. major leagues and are considered traitors by Cuba’s communist authorities.
In baseball-crazed Cuba, pitcher Orlando Hernandez was the sport’s top star on its top team, the Industriales of Havana. Hernandez was idolised as “El Duque” (the Duke). When he defected to the US a decade ago it sent shock waves round the Communist-ruled island nation. Despite starring four times on sides that won the World Series, he was never again mentioned in Cuba’s state-controlled media. Yet when film-maker Ian Padron made a documentary on Industriales, he felt he could not leave out El Duque, or indeed two other stars who defected to the US leagues.
Five years ago, Ian Padrón made a documentary about Cuban baseball and ran afoul of government censors. He took government money from the Cuban Film Institute and told a story about Cuban baseball, “Out of this League” (“Fuera de Liga”).
In his daring piece of work, Padrón touched on a number of taboo subjects. He looked at the tough conditions players face on the island and included interviews with athletic icons who defected to the United States to play Major League Baseball.
No surprise, government censors considered it too controversial for the Cuban public. So it ended up on a shelf – barred from playing in state-run theaters or on television.
Censoring often backfires in communist Cuba – anything censored often becomes an overnight success. Cubans love nothing better than passing around forbidden material.
In fact, “Out of this League” became one of the hottest pieces of contraband circulating on Cuba’s underground market. Lots of people in Cuba saw the 68-minute film.
Without any fanfare whatsoever, the controversial film was aired on Cuban TV in early January of 2008. In the film, El Duque and the others strongly denied any treason.
“I’m proud to be Cuban,” said Hernandez, adding: “And I’m proud to have played for the two best baseball teams in the world, the Yankees and Industriales.” At which point, Superman-style, he unzipped his Yankees bomber jacket to reveal the royal-blue shirt of Industriales beneath it.
First baseman Kendry Morales, now playing for the Los Angeles Angels, was interviewed before he defected on a speedboat to Miami in 2004.
Baseball is Cuba’s national passion, but it has suffered a constant drain of its top talent with players leaving behind meager wages to find fame and fortune in U.S. baseball.
In 2002, Cuba lost its best pitcher, Jose Contreras, to the New York Yankees. He now plays for the Chicago White Sox.
As soon as baseball stars defect, their names vanish from Cuba’s official media, though Cubans continue talking about them on street corners.
The prime time showing of the documentary surprised Cubans, some of whom saw it as a sign of greater tolerance and debate in Cuba since Cuban leader Fidel Castro fell ill and handed over the running of the country to his brother Raul in 2006.
In a speech on December 28, Raul Castro said there was “an excess of prohibitions” in Cuba that did more harm than good.
Hernandez praised its broadcast. “I imagine the documentary will be a breath of fresh air on television for Cubans,” he told Miami’s Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald newspaper.
Like the critical debate on the nation’s way forward promoted by Raul, the screening of Fuera De Liga is a sign of change. It was a victory for intellectuals who had called for it in an email campaign, echoing an earlier campaign to win an apology from the regime for its past persecution of gays.
Protests are never direct, but they come close. Two years ago, Fuera de Liga was banned from a festival of new cinema in Cuba. The team that made it turned up for the event – all of them dressed in baseball shirts.
Below you will find Fuera de Liga split into 5 parts. Although it is in Spanish with no subtitles, it is worth a look nonetheless.
Part 1[youtube lk1zaPIeuC8]
Part 2[youtube BWNApGcbN3w]
Part 3[youtube B4nW2KFUu_s]
Part 4[youtube SSMn1HFQwKk]
Part 5[youtube IygZG_cvE1c]