The Miami Herald
May 5, 1999
Cuban delegation leaves defector, 6 others behind

Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Cuba's post-midnight baseball triumph over the Baltimore
Orioles was overshadowed by Cold War-era intrigue hours later Tuesday as one
former player in the 300-member delegation sought asylum and six other
members were left behind when the entourage hastily left Baltimore.

A high-ranking State Department official told Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami
Republican, that U.S. officials would seek to interview the six Cubans and ask if
they wish to seek asylum.

Rigoberto Betancourt Herrera, 54, walked into a Baltimore police station at 10
a.m. and requested asylum, according to police spokesman Robert Weinhold.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service took custody of Betancourt and began
interviewing him.

Betancourt is a former pitcher who has also been a pitching coach, though not for
the national team, according to a Capitol Hill staff member who talked to U.S.
security officials. The Cuban delegation included several retired baseball players
and other athletes.

While Betancourt's defection was confirmed, the status of six other delegation
members, none of whom are players, remained a mystery late Tuesday. Cuban
officials said the six were at their diplomatic mission here after oversleeping and
missing their charter flight home.

``They were very upset when they found out they missed their flight,'' Luis
Fernandez, spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section, told The Associated
Press. He said the six members would take a later flight.

One U.S. official said the six ``were sheepishly embarrassed by their
oversleeping'' and are planning to return to Cuba today.

But the three Cuban-American members of Congress, including Diaz-Balart, said
they had reports that some of the six may want to defect, and asked the Clinton
administration to intervene.

``If it is true that Cubans have been held against their will by Castro's diplomats
and thugs in the United States, I hold the Clinton administration personally
responsible for those Cubans' safety,'' Diaz-Balart said.

The INS and State Department, citing the privacy and safety of potential
applicants for asylum, would not discuss the case of Betancourt or the other six

For Cuba, the team's 12-6 victory over the Orioles touched off a national
celebration Tuesday. The team was greeted by Fidel Castro and thousands of
fans at a tumultuous reception at the University of Havana. Castro personally
greeted star player Omar Linares and umpire Cesar Valdes, who tackled an
anti-Castro protester from Miami who ran on the field during the game at Camden

The Cuban team made history as the first to take on a major league squad on
U.S. soil since the 1959 revolution, and its stunning victory avenged a 3-2 loss to
the Orioles in the first game of the two-game series on March 28. Organizers of
the event said they hoped it would lead to more sports exchanges and a possible
thaw in relations between the two countries.

But the events after the game, according to U.S. officials, police and the Orioles,
quickly took on a Spy vs. Spy quality that seemed a throwback to the days when
Cuba was part of the Soviet bloc.

When the game ended after midnight, Orioles owner Peter Angelos threw a
reception for the jubilant Cuban delegation at Camden Yards. According to one
Capitol Hill source who talked to security officials, the Cubans realized some
members of the delegation were missing.

The Cuban delegation hastily left the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel before 6 a.m.,
canceling plans the Orioles had made to give them a bus tour of the city before an
afternoon departure.

According to one State Department source, six ``older members'' of the
delegation apparently came down to breakfast and discovered that their entourage
had left. By mid-day, Cuban officials said the six were at the Cuban Interests
Section, which is part of the Swiss Embassy in downtown Washington.

Citing the history of defections by such players as half-brothers Livan and Orlando
``El Duque'' Hernandez and a former member of Castro's security detail in the
Dominican Republic, the Cuban American National Foundation called on U.S.
officials to make sure the six Cubans were not being forced to go back.

``It's clear that Castro gambled that there would be no defections and lost,'' said
Jose Cardenas, Washington CANF director. ``The human desire to be free will
always trump the best-laid plans.''

According to the official Guide to Cuban Baseball, printed in Havana, Betancourt
pitched for eight seasons and compiled a won-lost record of 38-27 in 108
appearances on the mound. He was known primarily as a left-handed curveball
pitcher and played on at least three Cuban national teams in international
competition in the 1960s and 1970s.

                     Copyright 1999 Miami Herald