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Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 16:03 GMT
Games start without Cuba
Flor Blanca National Stadium, the venue for the games
The Games began on Saturday

The 19th Central American and Caribbean Games have opened in El Salvador, with representatives from 32 countries taking part.

People hold up their national flags
32 countries are still taking part, but Cuba is a notable absentee
The only problem is that Cuba, the most powerful sporting nation in the region and the team against which all the athletes measure themselves, will not be there.

The Cuban authorities said they were not participating because the Salvadorean authorities could not guarantee security for their 800-strong delegation.

But the real reason is probably not quite so simple - politics may well have played a part in Cuba's withdrawal.

'Like a call to Mass'

The Cuban team is very strong, despite the economic hardships on the socialist island.

Cuba regularly produces some of the best boxers, volleyball players and track and field athletes in the world.

Orlando Hernandez
Baseball player Orlando Hernandez defected to the USA in 1995
The head of the Cuban Olympic Committee, Ciro Perez, said the organisers in El Salvador had known about his security concerns for several weeks, but had done nothing about them.

One Olympic official, Mario Vasquez Rana, said an invitation to the games was like a call to Mass.

Cuba's withdrawal, he said, was a mistake which hurt him a great deal.

But he also said the decision was a political and not a sporting one - and he probably has a point.

Risk of defections

A move of such magnitude on the sports-mad island must have the approval of Cuba's number one sports fan, President Fidel Castro.

Relations between his socialist government and the right-wing government in San Salvador have been fraught for some years.

The other major reason, although the Cuban authorities would never admit it, is the risk that its athletes might defect.

Over the past few years many athletes - including swimmers, baseball players and fencers - have competed abroad and fled before collecting their medals.

See also:

27 Jun 02 | Americas
04 Jul 02 | Americas
27 Jul 02 | Country profiles
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