PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba · Every time Miriam Murillo goes out of town for more than a few days her neighbors start talking and rumors take flight.
She must have left Cuba aboard a speedboat, some speculate. This time she’s gone for sure, others say.
In this corner of Cuba’s tobacco-growing province, it’s no secret that the wife of Jose Contreras, one of Cuba’s star pitchers who defected and signed with the New York Yankees, now also wants out to join her husband.
It’s also no secret that the Cuban government has denied her exit visa request, saying she must wait five years because of Contreras’ status as a “deserter.”
So for now, Murillo ignores the persistent rumors of her imminent departure and surprises neighbors every time she returns to her humble apartment after a short vacation in Havana or at the beach.
Her husband’s record-setting $32 million contract—the highest ever for a Cuban ballplayer—can buy a lot of nice things. But it cannot buy the one thing he wants most: his family’s company.
“I wish there were a boat right there, to get aboard it and get lost,” said Murillo, 31, pointing to the bougainvillea-planted yard outside her paint-chipped balcony. “It’s not easy to know your husband is waiting for you with everything and you have to be punished here for five years.”
In Tampa for spring training last week, Contreras said he felt his family was being penalized for his decision to defect in October 2002 while the Cuban national team was in Mexico.
“I think he [Cuban President Fidel Castro] is disappointed in the decision I made, and he’s taking it out on my family,” Contreras, 32, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It bothers me. During eight years I gave all I had for the team and for my country. If they thought about that, they would think to release my family.”
In Havana, Carlos Rodriguez, Cuba’s national baseball director, said he could not comment on Contreras’ family’s exit permit.
“I don’t have anything to do with that,” Rodriguez said.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman also said the case is out of his purview.
“Legally there is nothing we can do,” he said.
Contreras, the youngest of nine children, grew up in the tiny town of Las Martinas, about 180 miles west of Havana. His parents were tobacco farmers, but he was set on going to veterinary school.
At 15, he met Murillo, who was also working toward a technical degree in veterinary medicine. The young couple married six months later.
As a teenager, Contreras was a volleyball aficionado. His talents in baseball were discovered by a Cuban pitcher who saw him play in a municipal team near his hometown and encouraged him to try out for Pinar del Rio’s provincial team. He joined Cuba’s national team in the mid-1990s and traveled extensively for international games, always returning to his wife and two daughters, Nailan, 11, and Nailenis, 3.
Murillo said American recruiters, promising lucrative contracts, sometimes sought out her husband at their home. At other times they tried to approach him during international competitions. Contreras initially rejected the offers, although at the time he was making 600 pesos—about $23—a month in Cuba with bonuses ranging from $2,500 to $5,000, depending on his team’s performance in international competitions.
“He never thought of leaving the country,” Murillo said.
The Cuban government gave Contreras a blue Peugeot 400C and promised him a house in Pinar del Rio. However, after two years of waiting for the house, he grew frustrated, Murillo said.
“When he left this country his average was great. He was among the best pitchers and yet he couldn’t get a house,” Murillo said. “Imagine what would have happened when he was retired.”
Murillo, who grew up in the small town of Los Palacios, ringed by mountains and tobacco fields, says she no longer worries about money. Her husband wires plenty of cash with which she takes her daughters to visit friends in Havana or to the beaches of Veradero, a tourist hotspot on Cuba’s northern coast.
Because she planned to leave Cuba, her apartment is bare, with only a couch, two easy chairs and a hulking, broken refrigerator in the living room. The walls are painted sea foam green and the only decoration hanging in the living room is a ticking clock, a fitting metaphor for Murillo’s predicament.
“We don’t know how long this separation will last,” she said.