Beyond the rink: Cuban hockey player flees to Chile in a fight for freedom

The night before our final game, a jammed door lock sparked a conversation among us about escaping. The fear of repercussions in Cuba loomed, but the thrill of freedom enticed us. “Opportunities do not come twice,” we agreed, as a rush of adrenaline punctuated our fear.

  • 6 months ago
  • January 23, 2024
6 min read
The Cuban delegation: seven athletes from the national hockey team defected to Chile following the Pan American Games. | Photo courtesy of Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain The Cuban delegation: seven athletes from the national hockey team defected to Chile following the Pan American Games. | Photo courtesy of Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain, 23, hails from Bejucal in the Mayabeque Province of Cuba. A hockey enthusiast since the age of nine, Jennifer has been an integral part of her national team since she was 15. Her notable achievements include winning the Central American Championship in Barranquilla in 2018 and participating in two Pan American Games – Lima in 2019 and Santiago in 2023. Presently, she is employed at a gym in Santiago, concurrently awaiting the regularization of her immigration status and the opportunity to join a club and continue her hockey career.
background information
 Twelve Cuban athletes, including members of the national hockey teams and other sports, defected from Cuba during the Pan American Games. In response, Chilean Senators Francisco Chahuán and Rojo Edwards proposed a bill to grant them Chilean nationality as a humanitarian gesture and a commitment to human rights. This bill aims to recognize the athletes’ valor and provide them with a safe environment to exercise their fundamental rights, in alignment with Article 10, section 4, of the Chilean Constitution. For more information read here.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Living far from my homeland gives me a rush of freedom, tempered by a deep yearning for my family. This emotional whirlwind remains a constant in my life, but I do not regret leaving Cuba’s Pan-American hockey delegation or fleeing my country.

Rising through the ranks of Cuban hockey filled me with national pride but it also brought increasing limitations. Control, surveillance, and punishment left me feeling trapped by Cuba’s restrictive approach to athletes. A pivotal moment came at the Pan American Games in Chile where the glaring disparity in freedoms inspired my teammates and I to take a life-altering step. We left our team and sought refuge in Chile.

My decision represented more than a physical departure from my homeland. It became an odyssey to transcend my identity as an athlete from Cuba, confined by geographic and political barriers.

Read more immigration stories at Orato World Media.

From Havana’s Rinks to National Pride

My curiosity about hockey emerged at nine years old when I accompanied my brother to a training. What started as a casual interest quickly turned into a passion. By 12, I joined an elite team in Havana, which meant less time with family. Despite my love for the game, after two years the separation became too much.

Then, suddenly, at 15 years old, a call to my mother changed everything. They invited me to play for the national hockey team. When my mom hung up the phone, a rush of exhilaration ran through my body. Yet, due to restricted internet in Cuba, I did not fully understand the global scale of what I was entering.

Hockey became an adventurous journey. In 2018, I won the Central American Championship. However, in 2019, the Pan American Games in Lima opened my eyes to the harsh reality of our international standing. The 10-0 loss against Canada highlighted our inadequacies in training and resources, exposing the isolation of Cuban sports.

In Lima, the constraints on our freedoms became crystal clear. Visits to friends required special permission and constant surveillance. They scrutinized our social media activity at school and punished any signs of anti-revolutionary behavior. I had begun to feel increasingly stifled and trapped.

This period in Lima became a turning point as I realized staying in Cuba could impede my prospects for my career in hockey. As my awareness grew, I made a critical decision, leading me down a life-changing path away from my homeland.

The escape to freedom: a Cuban athlete’s defiant journey at the Pan American games

In October, I arrived in Chile for the Pan American Games, brimming with pride to represent Cuba. Donning the national colors, I felt a profound unity with my teammates as we strove toward a common goal. Yet, our experience sharply contrasted other delegations. Constant surveillance in the Pan-American Village revealed the magnitude of the restrictions placed upon us. While other athletes roamed freely exploring the city, we remained confined.

The night before our final game, a jammed door lock sparked a conversation among us about escaping. The fear of repercussions in Cuba loomed, but the thrill of freedom enticed us. “Opportunities do not come twice,” we agreed, as a rush of adrenaline punctuated our fear.

An escape plan quickly took shape. I contacted a friend in Santiago for help, and his willingness to assist sealed our decision to defect. On the morning of November 4, conflicting emotions overshadowed our final game against Uruguay. The game, which was secondary in our minds, seemed overshadowed by the weight of the decision looming over us. Sadness and anticipation drew us toward the promise of newfound freedom. 

Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain in action before defecting to Chile, leaving the Cuban team behind | Photo courtesy of Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain

During a silent lunch, I packed my backpack, anxiously awaiting the right moment. When our overseers turned their attention elsewhere, we seized the opportunity and headed toward the gate. With each step, we acted casual but my heart pounded in my chest. At the exit, it felt like an eternity as we handed our credentials to security. Once they let us through, we felt a flood of relief flooded and hurried to my friend’s car waiting outside. From there, we moved as quickly as possible.

Safely settled in at my friend’s house, I called my parents and my mother’s words filled me with courage. “If you have already done it, go ahead. Do not be afraid,” she said. My mom offered comfort and strength in a moment filled with uncertainty, as I considered the profound impact of this life-altering choice.

Embracing freedom and meeting legends in Chile

That day, tears fell from my eyes as I talked to my parents and wished my father a happy birthday. I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders, wondering when I might see them again. When the calls to family ended, we collectively left our team’s WhatsApp group and turned off our phones to evade tracking.

We stayed briefly in Santiago before relocating to Lquique, which offered greater safety. During those first days, we stayed indoors, wary of being recognized. Despite our caution, during our first venture outside, people recognized us immediately from the news. I had to accept and face the outcome of my choice. It was inevitable.

A law firm offered to help us with our immigration status and during a meeting, I mentioned my dream of meeting Luciana Aymar, the greatest living female hockey player in Chile. The assistant I spoke to immediately seemed surprised and I knew the meeting was unlikely.

Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain pictured on the left, standing alongside hockey legend Luciana Aymar. | Photo courtesy Jennifer de la Caridad Martinez Bulllain

One day, we unexpectedly received an invitation to a shopping center. When we arrived, we saw an extra chair and thought little of it. Then, all of a sudden, Luciana Aymar walked toward us with a beaming smile. Overcome with joy, I burst into tears. “My God,” I managed to say before hugging her.

Sitting beside a legend like Aymar, I experienced a level of fulfillment that exceeded my time with the Cuban National Team. I still look at those photos in awe. Now, walking freely through life and exploring the internet, I cherish this sense of freedom which I never knew before. My journey fleeing Cuba taught me that we are the sum of our choices, and I harbor no regrets about the risk I took for this newfound liberty.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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