Criminalizing an Underground Railroad


The great journalist Michael Lewis has a terrific piece in Vanity Fair about baseball players who escape the island prison of Cuba for a chance to live and play in the United States. Excerpt:

A few made it to the big leagues, most did not, but they all needed a great deal of help. From the outside it all looked so easy for the likes of [Rene] Arocha and [Eddie] Oropesa and [Rey] Ordoñez. None of it was. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for American life. One of Gus Dominguez's new Cuban clients, Ariel Prieto, took his $1.2 million signing-bonus check from the Oakland A's, stuck it in his jeans, and ran them through the washing machine. Eddie Oropesa, awed by the size of American refrigerators, bet a fellow player he could stay inside one for 15 minutes-and might have suffocated if Dominguez hadn't opened the door and found him shivering. Latin players were just then flooding into American professional baseball, but these Cubans weren't like the others: they'd been governed by fear, and when you took the fear away they were rudderless. They ate too much and listened too little, all the while longing for their loved ones back in Cuba. Dominguez took them in, even the ones who didn't stand much of a chance of making it big. He housed them with his family, sometimes for months, and helped them to cope with the shock of freedom. And they were grateful. Sprung from the fridge, Oropesa debuted for the Philadelphia Phillies on opening day 2001, against the Florida Marlins. In a tight game, with men on base, and his agent in the stands, Oropesa came in to face Marlins slugger Cliff Floyd. Floyd popped out. "And when I went to the dugout," says Oropesa, "I was crying. It was my most beautiful day playing baseball. And if Gus hadn't been here, I don't know if I would have played."

And where is Gus Dominguez now? In federal prison, for human smuggling. Based on the testimony from a single jailhouse source, who received a "greatly reduced prison sentence" in return for a deeply implausible story. Writes Lewis:

The governments of the United States and Cuba now agree on at least one thing: Americans with a commercial interest in springing Cuban ballplayers should be jailed for pursuing it. Gus Dominguez is now serving a five-year sentence in a California prison. In 1996 another American sports agent, Juan Ignacio Hernandez, was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban jail for traveling to Cuba and trying to persuade ballplayers to leave. […]

And why, in the end, was this crime he says he didn't commit so awful? Even more than ordinary citizens, Cuban ballplayers are prisoners of the state. "The most prized possessions to Fidel Castro were the baseball players," says Dominguez. A democratic government should encourage, not punish, those who seek to help victims of tyranny to escape.

Whole thing, complete with terrific descriptions of Cuba and much else, here.

I wrote about the perversities of Cuban baseball back in June 2002, and in other fora I've reviewed two different books on the subject.