Defector Recounts Escape

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

Reinier Alcantara did not believe he would have another opportunity to pursue freedom, so on Thursday night, as he and his Cuban soccer teammates were preparing for a team dinner at the Crystal City Doubletree Hotel, the 26-year-old forward made his break.

Sharing details in a telephone interview with The Washington Post last night, Alcantara said he was in the lobby, wearing a casual shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, when he saw the coaches wander into the gift shop. He rode the escalator down to street level and "started running like crazy and didn't look behind," he said through an interpreter who arranged the interview and requested anonymity for political reasons.

After sprinting for about eight blocks, Alcantara said he flagged down a taxi and, with the few words of English he knew, told the driver, "Go, go, go!"

About a half-hour later, unaware of where he was, Alcantara said he got out at a McDonald's, paid the driver with dollars he put aside, and called a Cuban friend who lived several hours north of Washington. While he awaited his friend's arrival, he found a cheap hotel and attempted to sleep, all the while worried he would be discovered by Cuban officials.

His friend called an Atlanta-based contact sympathetic to Alcantara's situation. On Friday, after the three had met for lunch at a diner, Alcantara was driven to Georgia and given a place to stay and money for clothes and other necessities. The next night at the contact's home, he watched on TV as his former teammates lost to the United States, 6-1, in a World Cup qualifier at RFK Stadium.

"I felt very sad" watching the game, he said. "I felt I let the team down, but it is a decision I had to make for my future. I want to be free. It was my decision to make, to leave my family and my country, not knowing when I could go back. But I needed to be free for myself, for my life, to choose my future."

Midfielder Pedro Faife, 24, also went missing from the team hotel. According to the Miami Herald, Faife left the team on Friday and relatives met him in Washington and drove him to Orlando. Alcantara said he didn't learn of his teammate's departure until reading a story online.

Alcantara plans to present himself to U.S. immigration officials in the coming days, and he hopes to pursue a playing career. More than a dozen Cuban soccer players have defected in the past six years, and while only Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo is currently in MLS, several others are playing in lower divisions. Alcantara was in contact with at least three of those former Cuban players over the weekend.

He has made an estimated 36 appearances for the national team since 2005 and was a longtime member of his provincial club, Pinar del Rio, on the western part of the island.

With no wife or children in Cuba, Alcantara said he had thought about defecting before. He contemplated a move last year, when Cuba played in the New York area, but the opportunity was not right and he felt close to the national team. However, his playing time had diminished recently and, he said, internal issues had soured his view of Coach Reinhold Fanz and the program.

Alcantara described poor treatment of soccer players: bad food that was rationed, terrible field conditions and a lack of equipment, cleats and uniforms. Because there are technically no professional athletes in Cuba, Alcantara said his occupation was officially maintenance worker at a sports complex, a job he never performed.

Before departing Cuba late last week, he did not tell his parents of his plans and never discussed it with his teammates because "no one on the team trusts anyone," he said. At least one member of Cuba's traveling delegation, he claimed, is a government spy.

After Thursday's training session in Washington, the team returned to the hotel and the players reported to their rooms. The telephones had been removed by Cuban officials, a standard practice to discourage players from communicating with outsiders on foreign trips.

He showered, then sought out a team official for permission to lounge in the lobby. Once there, he waited until he was out of view of the coaches and "realized it was my only opportunity. I ran and ran and then told the taxi driver to 'Drive me far away,' " he said. "I was so nervous. I didn't know where we were going, but I knew I was in a free country and everything would be okay."

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