Cuban female paddler defects while in Mexico

XALAPA, Mexico (AFP) - A Cuban athlete due to take part in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mexico has deserted and is headed to the United States, Mexican and Cuban officials said on Thursday.

Sandra Mustalier, 28, was a table tennis player with the Cuban team at the Games, which open on Friday in the eastern city of Veracruz.

"Do not look for me, I am fine. I wish everyone good luck," Mustalier wrote on her Facebook page, according to Carlos Padilla, president of the Mexican Olympic Committee.

He said Cuban athletes often desert their delegations at international competitions to try to avoid returning home.

"It is part of what the essence of each individual's freedom requires," Padilla said.

Mustalier's decision became apparent when she failed to show up on Thursday to register for the competition.

"She preferred to travel to the United States rather than compete," said Maria Luisa Fernandez, the Cuban consul-general in Veracruz.

The games bring together nearly 8,000 athletes from 31 countries and run till Nov 30.

The Cuban delegation was large, with about 500 athletes competing in 34 sports.

Last year, Cuba eliminated a 50-year-old migration rule that forced Cubans to obtain a permit if they wanted to travel abroad.

The reform was welcomed but air fares are exorbitantly expensive for most Cubans and it is hard to get entry visas into some countries.