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EX-CUBAN TEAM MEMBER DETERMINED TO DEFECT

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Former Cuban basketball player Richard Matienzo says he stands by his decision to defect to Canada, even though the first days have been tough.

"The hardest part is wondering if I'll ever see my family again," the 24-year-old said Saturday. "But that's life. I made my decision and I must live with it."But I'm also happy, and I know in my heart and soul that I made the right decision."

Matienzo was the first of two players to leave the Cuban national team during the World Championship in Toronto. He made his break Wednesday night, saying he could no longer tolerate the misery and hardship under Cuban leader Fidel Castro's Communist regime.

Teammate Augusto Duquesne, 24, joined him Friday, slipping away from the hotel where the team was staying.

The two men, best of friends and teammates on the national team for the past six years, are expected to formally apply for refugee status today.

"Right now, everything is conjecture because, as of (Friday) afternoon, he (Matienzo) had not made a refugee claim," said Immigration Canada spokeswoman Lucille LeBlanc.

LeBlanc said Matienzo, like any other claimant, would have to prove to the Immigration Refugee Board that "if he were to return home, he would face persecution."

While Matienzo spent Saturday doing interviews, Duquesne kept a low profile, trying to come to grips with the toughest decision of his life.

Both say they are fearful of potential reprisals against their families back home, but said they couldn't have made their decisions without the full support of family and friends.