Baseball in Cuba: Changeups or Regime Change?

March 29, 2013

With the start of regular season Major League Baseball on Monday, it’s a fitting moment to talk about the sport which has bound the U.S. and Cuba together since the 19th century.

Like everything else, baseball couldn’t escape the politics and propaganda that have surrounded the relationship over the last three centuries.

Even the story of how baseball got to Cuba is in dispute.  Some say it began when a Cuban named Nemiso Guillo, attending school in Mobile, Alabama, returned home in 1864 (others say 1871) with a bat and baseball in his trunk.  Another credits U.S. sailors bringing the game to Cuba aboard an American naval vessel.  While we in the U.S. claim that Abner Doubleday, a Union general in the Civil War, invented the game, indigenous people in Cuba and neighboring islands played batos, “a bat-and-ball game,” before the region was colonized.

What is not in dispute is how fast baseball became part of the whirl of commerce, culture, and exchange between our two countries.

In the 1870s, Esteban Bellan, a third baseman, became the first Cuban to play professionally in the U.S. Cuba founded the first baseball league outside of North America in 1878. American players debuted for Club Colón the following year. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige are among the Americans who toured and played in Cuba, while star players born and raised on the island made their mark on the game in the U.S. for decades prior to the Cuban revolution.

But, engagement and exchange ended with the embargo. Cuba’s government, fearing the sport had been corrupted by professionalism, instituted an amateur league, forcing players to undergo significant cuts in pay.  As the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba entered the Special Period, players started a stream of defections, to enjoy the benefits of major league contacts, which have continued to this day.  This year, 60 Cuban players started the spring competing for positions on U.S. teams for the season starting next week.

Like the ping pong diplomacy used to “open” dialogue with China, baseball was considered a bridge for restoring dialogue with Cuba.  Exhibition games planned during the Ford administration were cancelled due to reports of Cuban troops in Africa. More successfully, the Baltimore Orioles, after three years of lobbying by owner Peter Angelos, played two match-ups with the Cuban National Team; they tied the series one game apiece, during a period of relaxed restrictions under President Bill Clinton.

That was too much for Members of Congress like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who, according to Lars Schoultz’s epical history, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic, declared “with every pitch, the belief of the Cuban people that the United States would never engage their oppressor will be eroded slowly.  With every swing, the hopes of political prisoners and dissidents for solidarity from the superpower 90 miles away will gradually be shattered.”

With the election of George W. Bush, baseball returned to being a political tool.  His administration tried to block Cuba from playing in the World Baseball Classic, preventing the world from watching Cubans take on U.S. big leaguers, which the New York Times called “one of the Classic’s most entertaining aspects.”

According to White House press secretary Scott McClellan, what bothered the Bush administration was not the Cubans’ prowess but, “Our concerns were centered on making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime, and that the World Baseball Classic not be misused by the regime for spying.”

The crisis was solved when Cuba agreed to donate its proceeds to Hurricane Katrina relief.  This was apparently enough to satisfy President Bush, even if whatever Cuban spying he feared took place nonetheless.

In 2013, Cuba participated in the World Baseball Classic without incident. By liberalizing Cuba’s travel and migration policies, President Raúl Castro has made it easier for Cuban baseball players who defected to play for U.S. teams to come to the island and visit their families, as José Contreras did in January.  His return demonstrated that times have changed.

But, other things, like U.S. policy, sadly remain the same.  This February, the U.S. taxpayer-funded Office of Cuba Broadcasting, paid $70,800 to renew its annual agreement with Major League Baseball, Along the Malecón reports, allowing Radio and TV Martí to broadcast games in Cuba, as they have since 2005.

Rather than providing the feed directly to Cuba’s state television and radio network, the U.S. government prefers delivering baseball broadcasts over channels relatively few Cubans can hear (as a 2010 study by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations showed), whose director, Carlos García-Pérez, last year signed an editorial that referred to the leader of the Cuban Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, as a lackey of the Castro regime.

This is baseball not as diplomacy but as propaganda. We need a fresh start.

As Louis Pérez argued this week in Bradenton Herald, that fresh start could include full restoration of travel rights for Americans to visit the island, and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror.  Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) called last week for ending the embargo entirely.  While that is pretty courageous for a Member of Congress from Florida, it puts her together with Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez (who, coincidentally is visiting Miami at the same time as President Obama is visiting the city).  She has called for exactly the same thing.

Any one of these ideas would be better than the regime change policies we have now.  But old habits die hard.  With Easter and the beginning of baseball just days away, the U.S. still can’t keep its mitts off of Cuba.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

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Climate Change and Cuba

March 22, 2013

There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real.  Not everyone agrees, but the people who don’t believe it are answering to an awfully scornful title: climate change deniers.

Since assuming leadership in 2006, following the illness of his brother, President Raúl Castro initiated a gradual process to update the nation’s economic model and loosen restrictions on the Cuban people.

Restrictions on cell phone ownership, access to tourist hotels, ownership of computers and DVD players, the ability to rent a car, sell real property, travel and return to the island, have ended or begun to fall away.  A process involving Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the government of Spain provided for the release of high profile political prisoners, including the remainder of those confined from a round-up that took place in 2003.  Some 400,000 Cubans have taken the opportunity to open small businesses in newly legalized professionals.  The former Pope Benedict XVI, who was warmly received in Cuba last year, spent part of his visit inspecting the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary, “the first building that Cuba’s government has allowed the Catholic Church to build since the 1959 revolution.”

Cuba is not the multi-party democracy the U.S. has been demanding it become at the point of a spear since 1959.

Even so, the idea that any reform was taking place in Cuba has been too foreign for many in the U.S. to accept, so it’s been dismissed in recent years, much like evidence of rising temperatures and catastrophic storms could not persuade some people to worry about the weather.

Reform in Cuba, however, has just gotten a lot harder to deny.  Consider, for example, Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s dissident blogger, now visiting the U.S. in the midst of an 80-day world tour. What’s she doing here anyway?  Reform deniers were absolutely certain she wouldn’t get a visa when Cubans’ travel rights changed.  Well, as former Congressman Bill Delahunt wrote in The Hill this week, “it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.”

Free to speak her mind on U.S. soil, is Yoani denying that changes are taking place in Cuba? Quite the opposite.  In fact, she told an audience at New York University that “Irreversible change” is transforming Cuba, because independent bloggers and democracy activists are forcing Raul Castro’s government to evolve. “Cuba is changing,” she said, “but not because of Raul’s reforms. Forget that.”

This line of thought clearly engaged the Washington Post, which wrote after she visited the newspaper:  “Cuba has lately seen some economic reforms and liberalizations; one of them allowed Ms. Sánchez to travel freely abroad for the first time. But she told us the real change in Cuba today is not from the top but rather from below.”

Serious analysts like Arturo López-Levy say it’s “nonsense” that conditions are changing in Cuba without the Cuban government changing its policies.

True, but there’s a larger point: For Yoani, the Post, and others, the question is different; it’s moved from “is reform even happening in Cuba?” to “who is responsible for the changes underway?”

That’s a huge and important shift.  The hardliners know it and they don’t like it.  Capitol Hill Cubans angrily labels the reforms “fraudulent change.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls her colleagues in Congress “Castro apologists” because they support lifting restrictions on Cuba.

Theirs is the language of denial.  They may be out in the snow and the rain stomping their feet in anger, but the debate on Cuba – like the weather – has really changed.

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Cuba A-Z (from Aruca to Zoo-bio)

March 15, 2013

The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.”  Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.

So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.

Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.”  He supported the revolution.  Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.”  But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.

He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.

Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967.  He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico.  Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time.  It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”

Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family.  He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.

He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba.  The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.

This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.”  His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.

In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.

Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”

Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are  incendiary acts in some Miami precincts.  As WSVN reported:  “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”

Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech.  He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted  in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”

As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know.  It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family.  As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”

Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.

But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.

Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba.  He said:

“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.

Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings.  We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.

To fill in what he does not know about zoos, Senator Rubio could join the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, yes it really exists, or simply visit its Facebook page.

To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.

Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:

“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel.  It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”

That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for.  His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life:  “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.

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Happy International Women’s Day…for all

March 8, 2013

March 8th is International Women’s Day.

It started more than a century ago to call attention to the struggles of women who worked as garment workers.

Now, it’s a global celebration; it still shines a spotlight on the harsh conditions that women confront, but also reminds us that making progress on women’s rights as human rights, equal access to economic opportunity and political power, will bring us closer to a more just world.

To join the celebration, our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), released this report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

It examines progress made by Cuban women toward gender equality since the 1950s and discusses how that progress can be sustained in the future.

We published the report after two years of fact-finding, collaboration with Cuban and U.S. scholars, and four research trips to the island, during which we interviewed dozens of Cuban women who spoke candidly to us about their lives, their gripes, and their aspirations.

In it, you will hear the voice of Emilia, an auditor who speaks three languages. She says, “I was born in the Revolution.  It has given me opportunities.” Mimi, an academic, who was told by a manager not to get married or have kids, discusses sexism in the workplace.  Barbara, a small business woman, who tells us about the decision making, the ability to save money, and the feelings of independence that come from being her own boss.

The story in Cuba is really interesting and really complex.  In the mid-1950s, the Cuban revolution made gender equality an important part of its political project.  After coming to power, Cuba’s government acted on its commitments and began addressing widespread attitudes that held women and a lot of other Cubans back.

If you just look at the numbers, the progress is extraordinary.  According to Save the Children, Cuba scores first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel, female life expectancy at birth, and other factors.  It has tripled the number of Cuban women who work.  It has fulfilled the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality.

These accomplishments are met with skepticism, even disbelief, by some in the U.S.; because Cuba has a tiny economy, it is not capitalist or rich and, by U.S. standards, it is not free.

But, it is also the case that these numbers don’t tell the full story.

Measured against key objectives of gender equality – do women have access to higher-paying jobs; can they achieve a fair division of labor at work and home; are they acceding to positions of real power in the communist party or government– Cuban women told us their country has a long way to go.

What about the future?  To address its economic problems, Cuba is taking steps to update its economic model – for example, cutting state jobs, and reallocating spending on health and education programs – that propelled women forward.  As Cuban scholars tell us, these actions could have real repercussions for women and gender equality.

So, the report concludes with recommendations about the role Cuban women can play in building their country’s future.

Because we believe that having a stable and prosperous Cuba ninety miles from our shores is in the national interest of the United States, our recommendations include steps the U.S. can take to signal its support for women and Cuba’s economic reforms writ large.

We are not alone in holding this view.  As Jane Harman, who served in the U.S. House and who is director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the New York Times:  “Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”

You’d think the administration would agree.  After all, President Obama released a statement for International Women’s Day saying “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”

But smart wouldn’t describe U.S. policy toward Cuba.  As Dr. Cynthia McClintock at George Washington University says, “It’s a contradiction. Here’s a country which has been doing well at this (gender equality) but we don’t want to deal with it.”

After failing for so long, it’s time for the U.S. to engage with Cuba differently.  If policymakers accepted Cubans’ humanity and ran U.S. foreign policy accordingly, we could support women, start repairing our relations with Cuba, and remove an irritant that has long divided us from the region.   That is why we hope Congress and the Executive Branch really pay attention to what we report and recommend.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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Reality Check

March 1, 2013

The same day that a bipartisan Congressional delegation left Cuba, the Boston Globe triggered a brief and unsatisfactory debate when it reported that “High-level US diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.”

That Cuba should be removed from the list has long been the view of authorities from the Council on Foreign Relations to anti-terrorist expert Richard Clarke.  It has been understood for years that the designation was at least out-of-date and a function of domestic politics rather than terrorism policy or reason.  When Cuba was revealed as a broker of the peace process between the government of Colombia and the FARC – after years of being listed as a state sponsor for “supporting” the FARC – it was obvious that the next step was delisting.

This would be in accordance with U.S. law which says, as ABC News pointed out, “in order for any country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” a finding that our government cannot make regarding Cuba.

But the bodyguard surrounding the status quo moved quickly to discredit the notion that U.S. policy would undergo any change.  Leave it to the State Department to say, “Not so fast.”  In the words of spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

Others went further.  As Professor Greg Weeks posted this week, José Cárdenas, a former senior U.S. official, argued in an op-ed piece, that while Cuba is no longer supporting terrorism, it should remain on the list of state anyway.  Weeks called this “pretty much the definition of moving goal posts.”

This is our great problem.  U.S. policy is based on the premise that Cuba must capitulate unilaterally to our demand that it reshape its political system to our liking, or U.S. sanctions will remain in place.  Consequently, when Havana changes the facts on the ground that fall short of that goal, Washington cannot consider them consequential.

No matter that, as The Economist reported, “Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses.” Or, “Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel.”

No matter that President Raúl Castro, as we reported two weeks ago, has announced that he will abide by the term limits he put into place, or that a far younger man, Miguel Díaz-Canel, apparently less charismatic and unrelated to the Castro family, is being groomed to succeed him.  A Cuban government no longer run by a member of the family is a key goal of U.S. policy, but this development, too, cannot be acknowledged.

Once Raúl Castro made his announcement, as the Miami Herald reported, the maximalists simply moved the goal posts to other demands.

Forget the Castros, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby, “The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections.” Or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “(T)he real change in Cuba involves much more than the Castro brothers… The whole system crafted by the Castro brothers is corrupt and must be totally replaced.”

Happily, policymakers who actually take the trouble to visit Cuba, and talk to the Cubans, are more grounded in reality.  As Senator Pat Leahy, leader of the delegation which met with President Castro, Alan Gross, and others, said on network television upon his return, “I think the worst thing that can happen is if we stay either in our country or in their country in this 1960s, 1970s Cold War mentality.  We’re a different century now.”

Cuba has made clear over the last, oh five or six decades its system is not up for negotiation. Thus, the administration must decide whether to be with the maximalists, who argue against the evidence that nothing in Cuba has changed, because everything in Cuba hasn’t changed, or switch to a reality-based policy that takes into consideration developments that actually occur, on issues from terrorism to who is being positioned to run the country, and then respond accordingly.

We’d like to think that Rep. Jim McGovern, who joined Leahy in Cuba, was on to something when he told Nick Miroff of the Global Post, “I feel change is in the air.  To me, this is the moment. We have President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and my hope is that they will take some risks and end this last relic of the Cold War.”

That would be nice.

Coming Soon: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future”

On March 6th, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will release the results of a two-year study on the status of women and gender equality in Cuba.  This week, we have been posting quotes from women we interviewed, as well as photos and other information, on our Facebook page and on Twitter.  Be sure to follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page – we’ll continue posting updates leading up the official release!

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