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by @ 11:32 am on March 15, 2008. Filed under Cuba, Foreign Affairs

A group of Cuban soccer players have defected to the United States:

At first, Loanni Cartaya Prieto called his grandfather to say hello.

Prieto, a defender for the Cuban under-23 national soccer team, was in Tampa, Fla., competing in the regional Olympic qualifying tournament. His grandfather lives in West Palm Beach.

But after Prieto hung up, he had another thought.

“This could be our opportunity to make our dreams of becoming a professional soccer player come true,” he said Friday by telephone from West Palm Beach.

On Tuesday afternoon, just before playing the United States in a match that ended in a 1-1 tie, Prieto called his grandfather again. This time the conversation was urgent. Pick me up tonight, at my hotel, he said; I want to defect.

Around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, Prieto and four teammates went out a side door of the Doubletree Hotel, got into his grandfather’s truck and slipped away toward an American future. The young men were no longer members of the Cuban national soccer team; they were refugees.

By Wednesday night, two more players had left the team hotel. As of Friday, an assistant coach was also unaccounted for. Although the defection of Cuban athletes from international competitions is not uncommon, the sudden departure of seven players and an assistant coach at a qualifying tournament for the Olympics represented a stunning rebuke to the Cuban government.

Apparently, Fidel’s socialist paradise isn’t all that great after all.

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