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Cuban Soccer Players Defect to US


As many as seven members of a Cuban national soccer team are reported to have defected in the United States shortly after playing a match in the U.S. state of Florida. VOA's Brian Wagner has more from Miami.

Five of the players said they abandoned their team at a hotel in Tampa Tuesday night and plan to seek political asylum in the United States. The coach and teammates from Cuba's under-23 team said the five disappeared shortly after playing a qualification match for the upcoming summer Olympics in Beijing.

The Miami Herald online publication has reported two more Cuban players defected Wednesday, bringing the total to seven. The paper says its information comes from sources close to the players.

The five players who deserted the squad Tuesday, told U.S. media they hope to establish themselves in the country and play professional soccer. A local team, Miami FC, said they will try out for it.

Groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami often seek to help Cuban performers and doctors to defect while they are on missions outside the country.

The group's human rights director, Omar Lopez Montenegro, says they reached out to the Cuban soccer team during the trip but have not contacted the five.

He said many take the decision to defect to expand the opportunities for their career and their families.

"When you are an athlete or a performer in Cuba, you are kind of a slave to the Cuban government. For example, athletes cannot negotiate their [own] contracts," he said.

Last December, a group of Cuban ballet dancers defected during a trip to Mexico, and a top Cuban television personality sought asylum after a visit to Canada. All of them are now pursuing their careers in Miami.

U.S. law allows for Cuban immigrants who arrive on U.S. soil to apply for residency after living in the country for one year.

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