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Cuba’s biggest export is sports

Times Staff Writers

Watching Cuba’s national baseball team play can be a little like watching a supermodel walk down a runway: They’re both elegant, full of confidence, and though they never look like they’re in a rush, they eventually get where they’re going.

So when Cuba began to stir in the final inning of its Pan American Games opener with Panama there was no doubt a game-winning rally was coming.

But as the dangerous Ariel Pestano strode to the plate with a runner on first, Panama Manager Alfonso Urquiola didn’t turn away. Instead he turned toward his infield and made sure shortstop Avelino Asprilla was positioned exactly where Pestano hit the ball a few pitches later, starting a game-ending double play.

Good scouting? More like a good memory, because Urquiola, a former standout infielder and one of Cuba’s most successful managers, once coached Pestano on the Cuban national team.

Now he, along with three coaches on Panama’s staff, are among the several hundred Cuban coaches and trainers working with developing sports programs in more than 50 nations across the globe.

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“For us, it’s a matter of pride,” said Pedro Cabrera, press director for Cuba’s national institute of sports, who managed a smile over Urquiola’s moxie. “We don’t like to lose. But we do like it when the managers we have abroad have [success].”

In that case, there has been a lot to like since Cuba first began sending coaches -- and for a while, athletes -- abroad in exchange for much-needed goods and currency under a program organized 15 years ago. Twenty of the countries participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for example, had Cuban coaches or trainers in their delegations. And after the Athens Games in 2004, Algeria and Argentina sought Cuba’s help.

Malaysia recently asked for assistance teaching physical education, Laos hired Cuban coaches to prepare for the Southeast Asian Games and the Dominican Republic invited 46 Cubans to coach sports such as swimming and volleyball.

“The Cuban coaches have been a great help for Dominican sports, a great asset,” said Luis Mejia, president of the Dominican Olympic Committee.

Angola has signed a protocol of cooperation and Brazil has turned its baseball training program over to three Cuban coaches. Last March, Nigerian sports minister Bala Bawa Kaoje became one of the latest to fly to Havana, looking for coaches to prepare his nation for this year’s African Games.

Even staunch U.S. ally Britain has gotten into the act. When the Glenn McCrory International School of Boxing opened in Newcastle last fall, a Cuban flag hung not far from the Union Jack to welcome Cuban coaches Alberto Perez and Alberto Gonzalez, who were given permission to work at the club as part of an agreement with Cubadeportes, the government agency tasked with promoting -- and selling -- Cuban coaches and athletes around the world.

Although Cuba had been offering coaches -- as well as doctors and teachers -- to countries in the developing world for years, it wasn’t until the economy plunged after the breakup of the Soviet Union that Cuba decided to make money from its sports program. So in November 1992 it created Cubadeportes to market the sale of athletes, coaches, sporting goods -- even baseball cards -- internationally.

Over time, Cabrera said, Cubans have gone to work in more than 110 countries with a record 6,300 coaches and trainers deployed to 51 nations last year. In addition to baseball, Cuban expertise is most often sought in track and field, boxing and the martial arts, with Cuban coaches sharing the techniques they learned through decades of cooperation with Eastern Bloc sports programs.

“When you first look at [Cuba’s] impact on sport, [it] was bringing in all these trainers, predominately from the Soviet and Eastern European countries,” said Paula J. Pettavino, author of “Sport in Cuba,” a detailed examination of Cuba’s sports program. “Then it started to switch and there’s a point at which [Cuba] is now sending them out. And the Cubans are now training everybody else.”

The coaches are generally provided room, board and a small salary by the host nation, which also pays Cubadeportes for their services. But Cabrera said the prices and salaries can vary widely, with wealthy nations such as Japan and Italy expected to pay more than Ecuador or Ghana. And still others, such as Venezuela, have traditionally paid for their Cuban assistance with low-cost oil.

“In some cases, yes,” Cabrera answered when asked if Cuba profits from its sporting exchanges. “But that’s not the fundamental reason why we do it. The satisfaction is to have the possibility to cooperate, in a humble way, with the development of sports in developing countries.”

The program hasn’t been without controversy, however. In Panama, where five of the 10 teams in the country’s regional amateur league are coached by Cubans, local baseball people have charged the imports with both spreading political ideology and making Panama’s coaches and players less desirable to professional teams, igniting a furor that has even drawn in the U.S. Embassy.

“They are using baseball to advance their ideology,” said former major leaguer Omar Moreno, a Panamanian. “But the bottom line is they don’t produce any major league prospects. The best baseball in the world is what I learned, U.S.-style.”

So Moreno, 54, has taken matters into his own hands, building a youth baseball system from the ground up with financial help from the embassy and Major League Baseball. With that backing, Moreno’s foundation started a league that now offers free instruction for more than 400 youths from poor neighborhoods around Panama City as well as in Moreno’s hometown of Puerto Armuelles in western Panama.

The embassy, through spokesman Gavin Sundwall, said its support was not politically inspired.

“This is not counter-Cuba,” he said. “It’s a way to further understanding and build better relations between countries.”

David Salayandia, sports director of TV Channel 9 of Panama and a local sports agent, isn’t so sure.

“The U.S. Embassy isn’t doing its job if it isn’t alert to what the Cubans are up to,” he said.

But Salayandia has his own ax to grind with the Cubans and the team owners who brought them to Panama. The 25 Cuban coaches in Panama’s top national league, he says, are taking both jobs and experience away from locals, which stunts the development of Panamanian baseball.

“A big reason there are so many is that they come cheap, about $5,000 a year plus expenses,” he said.

Cabrera refused to enter the fray, calling the matter “an internal problem for the Panamanians.” But, he added, “in my sincere opinion, with the concepts of Urquiola, the Panamanian team is getting better.”

Besides, he pointed out, if the Cuban coaches are so troublesome, why do so many countries continue to line up to get them?

“For us,” Cabrera said “it’s a matter of pride to have so many people helping out abroad. Sometimes what happens is what happened here [and we lose]. That doesn’t bother us. It makes us proud.”

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Baxter reported from Rio de Janeiro and Kraul from Panama City.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

chris.kraul@latimes.com


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