Let Them Play: Cuba Libré!

Geoffrey Schmidt

Freedom always wins. Unless, of course, you are talking about an American citizen's freedom to travel to Cuba, or a Cuban citizens' freedom to travel to America, the Cuban team's freedom to play in an international baseball tournament.

On June 27th, 2004, there was simply no greater place to celebrate being an American than Yankee Stadium. It was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in New York City. Some might have called it "typical," but it most certainly was not. What happened that day in the Bronx is the kind of thing pundits and sports commentators wax poetic about for years to come. It was a confluence of events that is only supposed to take place in fantastical movies: two teams from America's greatest city playing a subway-series double-header.

But it wasn't just a great day of "lets-play-two" baseball. It was a spectacle of cultural, political, and social proportions. And at the center of it all, on the mound for the Yankees, was a 32 year old Cuban-born pitcher named Jose Contreras; hundreds of feet away, looking on, stood his beautiful wife and children. In the previous weeks, the New York newspapers and national sports media made a modern-day drama of Shakespearean proportions out of the family's defection from Cuba, and of Cuban officials' expected but ultimately unsuccessful resistance. For the first time, on June 27th, Jose's family was seeing him pitch in the pin-striped uniform of the quintessential American baseball team.

I was not personally at the stadium, but rather at my apartment, eyes glued to the game like millions of other New Yorkers, baseball fans, and plain old red-blooded Americans. The day's proceedings had to bleed a little bit of patriotism and nostalgia out of even the most cynical sports fans like myself. After all, in all the coverage of the drama in the days prior, one thing was made clear: this moment was a testament to America's greatness. It was an example of the way in which we Americans relish the ideals of opportunity, of acceptance, and of freedom. What went unsaid -- but was, of course, heavily implied -- was that this was what made America superior to Contreras' wayward homeland, Cuba. The Cubans had flexed their tyrannical muscles, trying to stall and prevent Contreras's defection, but in the end freedom would win. Freedom always wins.

Funny isn't it? How irony, hypocrisy, and apathy play no favorites? They are just as indiscriminate to the world of sports as they are to culture, society, and even politics. Freedom does always win. This is true, unless, of course, you are talking about an American citizen's freedom to travel to Cuba, or Cuban citizens' freedom to travel to America. Or the Cuban citizens' freedom to play in an international baseball tournament.

Fast forward eighteen months. With the first Major League Baseball sponsored international tournament, the World Baseball Classic (WBC), less than a half a year away, the US Department of Treasury pulls the plug on any participation by the Cuban National Team. They cite a list of bureaucratic reasons, most specifically a longstanding policy that the United States will not take part in any events, which will directly benefit Cuba economically. This same policy has been ignored for the Olympics on countless occasions, but was conveniently being strictly adhered to in this particular instance. The treasury department even allowed an exhibition match between the Cuban National Team and the Baltimore Orioles in 1999, but this time refused to budge. This was blatant hypocrisy, and who spoke up? Who cared enough to question it? Some sports commentators complained that it seemed a little silly, but it really was no big issue. Outside of the major sports media outlets, and a few periodicals with influence on each side of the political spectrum, it just wasn't talked about.

When it came to our own government banning another nation from simply taking part in a supposed international tournament, the American public just didn't care enough to inquire why. We all accepted the policy because "it's just the way it is." Sportswriters, many of whom had written emotional pieces on the cultural significance of Contreras' big game on June 27th, didn't seem to care that the people being affected by this most were innocent compatriots just like Contreras. In fact, the most vocal voice on the subject, Dan Le Batard, wrote in ESPN The Magazine how ecstatic he was about the decision. He felt it was justice for Fidel Castro after what Fidel's government had done to ravage the Cuban people of their home land and their culture. And in his Miami Herald Column on January 21, Le Batard pleaded to his readers' sense of sympathy for Cubans like his mother, who had her "land and her childhood stolen from her" by Fidel Castro (whom he often refers to as Cuba's Hitler, Saddam, and bin Laden). Like Mr. Le Batard, the American public and the Treasury Department saw no irony in the fact that a policy intended, essentially, to punish the Cuban government for its mistreatment of Cuban citizens, was being used against those very same citizens.

This situation easily could have been another example of the silliness that has dominated relations between the two countries since the enforcement of America's embargo against Cuba. America could have carried through on the grounds of a stagnant policy, American citizens could have yawned and looked the other way, and Cuba could have admitted another frustrating defeat. It has all been done so many times before. But before the U.S. could thumb its nose at them once again, a peculiar thing happened: Cuba relented. Cuban officials let go of that signature stubborn arrogance for a greater good. The Cubans would not only forfeit any profit made from the World Baseball classic, they would donate the money to a charitable cause, and a singularly American cause at that: relief for Hurricane Katrina. It was the moment in the feel-good movie where the wimp realizes he may not be able to put up a fair fight with the bully, but he can sure outfox him.

The small gesture by Cuba, over negotiations for a relatively "meaningless" baseball tournament was brilliant, and may just have a much greater impact. In this instance Cuban officials achieved two goals: the relatively minor goal of gaining entrance for their team into the WBC, and the much larger goal of calling into question the very motivation and reasoning behind America's outdated policies toward Cuba. It was an opportunity for Cuba to once again play the pest to the American government, but this time force their hand. The Department of Treasury had to decide if it wanted to admit the absurdity of forcibly withdrawing Cuba from the tournament, or risk exposing itself to be the actual tyrant. After all, if this was really all about money, what remaining excuse did the U.S. have for excluding Cuba?

Whether they intended to do so or not, the Cubans' clever ploy did much more than merely gain them a chance to play in the WBC. It also cast a shadow of skepticism on the very basis of America's embargo on Cuba. If the Department of Treasury is willing to acknowledge charity from the Cuban government, this can't just be about money, can it? Is it about a conflict of ideologies? Perhaps, but then how do we explain our buddy-buddy relationship with China, a communist powerhouse which stands to make economic profits from American citizens that make Cuba's entire economy seem minute in comparison? How to explain our military bases on Cuban shores? Indeed, we now have to ask "what is this all about?" And had Cuba not extended a sly offer of compromise to the US in order to field a team at the WBC, we might not ever have the opportunity to ask ourselves this question. If America's team does meet with Cuba in the WBC, these types of questions are going to have to be raised. The fact is sports analysts love nothing more than showing off their intellectual capacity by bringing aspects of real world issues into the realm of sports, whether it is love, war, economics, or politics. Here is a perfect opportunity to discuss an issue of enormous political importance. And we have Cuba's unrelenting government to thank for that.

The sports industry in America is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut. And baseball, like all sports, and like all businesses in America, is inseparable from politics. Heck, before George W. Bush became president, he was fighting poor approval ratings from the citizens of Arlington, Texas, whose beloved Rangers he owned and was slowly running into the ground in the early 1990s. A couple notable names from those teams include Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco, both of whom appeared in May in front of a US Senate Committee on steroids and Major League Baseball. Former baseball players are moonlighting in political offices from the local level to the national. When our friendly neighbors to the north weren't showing the Montreal Expos enough love, Major League Baseball was lobbied by cities from coast to coast asking them to bring baseball to their constituencies. That team is now the Washington Nationals. How could other cities' lobbyists compete?

The point is that, as much as we like to pretend sports are all fun-and-games, they are often so much more. And when taken to an international level they become extremely powerful tools of nationalism, loyalty, and pride. Would we be celebrating the 1980 US hockey team 25 years later with a Kurt Russell film if it was just a nice underdog story? Of course not, because those Olympics were about the political climate of the time. The Cold War allowed us to use a bunch of men in hockey jerseys and ice-skates to symbolize a conflict of enormous political significance. So shouldn't a potential Cuban-American match-up mean something? Behind manager Higinio Vélez, Team Cuba has won 3 of the last 4 Olympic baseball tournaments, and the most recent baseball world cup. For the first time in International play, America will be able to field professional athletes. Meanwhile, Cuba will be fielding farmers, store clerks, fisherman, and a whole lot of pride. Some have argued that the state of Cuban baseball has deteriorated, but the Cubans still believe they have the best team in their bracket. Shouldn't all of this excite people?

Right now seems to be as good a time as any for the American public to give up its apathy on the matter of Cuba. What if Cuba's team wins? Think of what it might do for our political relations to have their communist government cutting a fat check to an American charity. Imagine the reaction of American politicians to Cuba offering a large amount of money to a singularly American cause, just months after we once again tried to push Cuba around. Few venues give us such a capacity to discuss world issues on a stage that is not entirely dominated by political posturing. Baseball fans, and citizens with the slightest interest in world politics, need to embrace this opportunity to bring a serious dialogue to a matter that has been ignored for far too long.

Perhaps many will feel, as Mr. Le Batard does, that it is a terrible mistake to allow Cuba's entrance to the WBC. Many others will feel that it is an opportunity for Cuban citizens to freely take part in a tournament of global intrigue. Let the doubters root hard for America's team to trounce Cuba's club. Let the supporters rally behind the "underdog" from that tiny island. No matter what, though, let's root hardest for these two star-crossed rivals to meet on March 20th in the finals. If and when the game does take place (and given the quality of competition in each bracket, it very well could), we cannot waste this opportunity to open up a dialogue on the issues that are really at the heart of our tensions with Cuba: democracy, economics, principal, and policy. Let's do our best to make sure this game is meaningful not just in the spectrum of baseball and sports, but in the much larger world of society and politics.





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