BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN | Miami Herald
Reinier Alcantara knew, even before he boarded the flight from Cuba to Washington, D.C., last week, that he wouldn’t be using his return ticket. He hatched the plan to defect months ago and worked extra hard to make the roster for last Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against the United States because he figured that would be his chance to escape a life that was getting increasingly more frustrating and depressing.
The only question was when he would make the break. Team security was tight, following the defections of seven members of the Cuban Under-23 soccer team in Tampa in March. The phone lines in the players’ rooms at the Doubletree Hotel were disconnected, their passports and visas were collected by a team official upon arrival in the nation’s capital, and coaches watched their every move.
But then the moment arrived. It was Thursday, early evening, and the team had just returned from practice. They were milling around the lobby, waiting for dinner, and the coaches walked into the gift shop. Alcantara got up from a sofa, walked down a hallway, found a service door, checked over his shoulder, stepped outside and sprinted toward freedom.
RUN TO FREEDOM
He ran, and ran, and ran. Six to eight blocks. At full speed, looking over his shoulder the whole way, worried that someone would snag him and deliver him back to the Cuban delegation. Finally, when he realized nobody was chasing him, Alcantara stopped at a corner, caught his breath, and flagged down a taxi.
He speaks very little English, but he used what he knew when he got into the taxi cab. ‘‘Drive me far,’’ he told the driver, motioning with his hand. ``Go far, far, far.’‘
They drove for nearly half an hour and Alcantara, a 26-year-old forward, got off at a McDonald’s. He asked the cabbie if he could borrow his cellphone to make a call. He called a friend in New Jersey, told him where he was, and the friend drove down to meet him.
On Friday morning, Alcantara met up with another friend, who took him shopping for food, clothing and toiletries, and drove home with him to Atlanta, where he will officially seek asylum and begin his new life. On Saturday night, he watched on television as Cuba lost 6-1 to the U.S. He felt bad for his teammates, but said he had no regrets. ‘‘I love my team, but this is my life, and my future, and I had to do this,’’ he said.
Alcantara had no idea that as he was getting over the most challenging day of his life, his teammate, Pedro Faife, was bolting from the team hotel back in D.C. with relatives, who drove him to their home in Orlando. The two hadn’t spoken as of Monday morning, but Alcantara planned to get in touch later in the day.
‘‘I feel so happy to finally be here, free to pursue my dreams,’’ Alcantara said by cellphone Monday morning, on his way to Miami for a series of interviews with Spanish-language media. ``I’ve been dreaming of this for a long, long time, and I just had to wait for the right opportunity. It was a very scary decision, and I was nervous that first night, but thanks to the support of friends, and so many great people in this country, I am feeling much calmer.’‘
Alcantara comes from Pinar del Rio, and said his neighborhood was devastated by the recent hurricanes, making an already difficult life unbearable. He said his home suffered roof damage and other houses nearby were in ruins. The government made promises to help, but there didn’t seem to be any help in sight. When he entered a grocery store Friday, his eyes welled with tears.
‘‘It’s beautiful to see the amount and quality of food here, the choices, the possibilities,’’ he said. ``Meanwhile, people are hungry in Cuba, scraping to get by, obsessing about where they’ll find dinner. I have to be careful with all this great food. If I keep eating, I won’t be able to run anymore and I’ll get out of shape.’‘
Alcantara stressed that he will always love Cuba, and has only warm feelings toward his teammates and coaches. But he felt ‘‘trapped’’ on the island, and had traveled enough through soccer to realize what life was like in other places. He was in East Rutherford, N.J., and Houston in 2007 for the Gold Cup, and the thought of defecting crossed his mind then, but he said family situations back home prevented him from doing so.
This time, nothing was holding him back. He is not married and has no children. His parents had no idea he planned to stay, and as of Monday he hadn’t spoken to them yet. They don’t have a telephone, so they’re hard to reach, but also, Alcantara said he wanted to wait a few days to let the news sink in because he knows how hard it will hit them.
‘‘I’m sure my parents are devastated with my decision, but in time, they’ll realize this was the best thing,’’ he said. ``There is no future for me in Cuba, no hope. You can dream there, but your dreams can’t come true. It’s a dead end for athletes, and for people of all professions. We hear promises, but they’re never fulfilled. Here, you dream and if you work hard enough, and sacrifice, your dreams can be realized.’‘
Alcantara’s goal is to play professional soccer, something he is not allowed to do under the Cuban regime. He knows it won’t be easy. He spent the past 48 hours fielding calls from Cuban soccer players who defected over the past few years—Yaikel Perez, Yenier Bermudez, Yordanny Alvarez, Lester More, and Osvaldo Alonso, who grew up with him, defected last year in Houston during the World Cup, plays for the Charleston Battery and last week was named the United Soccer Leagues’ 2008 Rookie of the Year.
‘‘Of course, it’s a little lonely to be starting all over so far from the people you love,’’ he said. ‘But it gives me courage and hope to talk to all those other guys, to Yaikel and Lester and Osvaldo, guys who did what I did, who made the same sacrifice. Every one of them told me the same thing. They said, `It won’t be easy. There will be pain. But be patient, work very hard, and everything will work out.’ I believe them. I feel, for the first time, that my future will be bright.’‘