Leaving Cuba to Pursue a Dream in United States
Manuel Huerta was 6 and living in Havana when he first dreamed of being an Olympian, after practicing alongside the Cuban national swim team six blocks from his home.
Now, the 28-year-old Huerta, who goes by Manny, is headed to London for his first Olympic appearance, as part of the United States triathlon team. He qualified at the trials May 12 in San Diego, clinching the second of two men’s spots on the team.
Huerta, who defected in 1997 at age 13, says his Olympic journey serves as a “message to the Castro government.”
“I’m one of the Cubans that Fidel calls the Miami Mafia,” he said, in reference to the Miami exile community that the Cuban state-run news media often portray as malicious and anti-Cuban.
“But I am not a bad person. I’m obviously not invading anyone in Cuba. Actually, I’m going to the Olympics.”
Cuba has a strong Olympic tradition, and will send athletes to London in events including table tennis, boxing and track and field. But Huerta said he probably would have been unable to pursue his athletic ambitions in Cuba because of his family’s political history.
In 1980, his grandmother Consuelo left Cuba as part of the Mariel boatlift, when the Castro government allowed Cubans to board boats at the port of Mariel, west of Havana, to come to the United States.
The mass emigration occurred after five Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy and were granted political asylum. When the Peruvian ambassador refused to return the citizens to the authorities, Castro removed the Cuban guards from the embassy, effectively releasing the thousands of asylum seekers who had gathered there. He called those who chose to leave “scum.”
“Even if I became the same caliber of athlete in Cuba as I am now, Castro would never have let me leave the island to represent Cuba, “ Huerta said. “Because of my family, we were marked.”
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