Baseball in Cuba: Changeups or Regime Change?

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…


Obama could soon decide Cuba’s status on State Sponsors of Terrorism list

Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether to advise President Obama to keep Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism before its annual publication on April 30reports Fox News Latino. Cuba’s presence on the list prevents U.S. sales of arms and dual use items, including some hospital equipment, and imposes financial restrictions, some with extraterritorial reach. Most of all, it is a point of friction with Cuba’s government, which maintains that Cuba’s inclusion on the list is and has always been political.

When the Obama left Cuba on the list last year, the stated reasons were: Cuba was harboring members of the ETA and fugitives wanted in the U.S. on criminal charges; reports had indicated that the government “provided medical care and political assistance to the FARC;” and the government did not participate in the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body that fights money-laundering and terrorist financing.

As CDA and allied organizations like WOLA and LAWG have argued, “The official justification for maintaining Cuba on the list has become increasingly thin…. Cuba does not, for example, endorse terrorism as a policy.” Moreover, even the U.S. State Department recognizes the role Cuba is playing as a peace broker in the talks between Colombia and the FARC taking place held in Havana. As Ambassador Anthony Quainton, who was involved in Cuba’s original designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, has said, “the time has come, for our mutual interests, to remove Cuba from the list.”

The Associated Press suggests that the terror list decision could serve as a litmus test for future relations between the two nations, and may also have implications for bilateral issues such as the case of Alan Gross. In recent weeks, several publications including the Los Angeles Times have called for the removal of Cuba from the list.

Click here to sign the petition created by The Latin America Working Group requesting the removal of Cuba from the list, which states:

Remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism now. Any rationale for keeping Cuba on this list has long-since disappeared, especially with Cuba now playing a principal role in facilitating and hosting the Colombia-FARC peace negotiations being held in Havana. Removal of Cuba from this list will allow the United States to take steps leading to normalized relations with Cuba, and it will positively impact the U.S. relationship with all of our Latin America neighbors.

Diplomats from Cuban Interest Section in Washington visit Tampa

Llanio González López and Warnel Lores Mora, counselor and first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section, took part in an event, Rapprochement with Cuba: Good for Tampa, Good for Florida, Good for America, promoting normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba held last week in Tampa, reports Cuba Standard. This marked the first visit by Cuban diplomats in over a decade to Tampa, a city with a large Cuban-American population.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor (FL-14) also attended the Tampa conference. Rep. Castor’s speech strongly advocated for engagement with Cuba. She stated her support for ending the embargo, saying that the policy simply “does not make sense any longer.” While acknowledging that significant issues still exist between the U.S. and Cuba, she held that these disputes can be dealt with diplomatically.

Separately, José Ramón Cabañas, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, visited the University of Georgia as the keynote speaker of a conference debating the embargo on Cuba. This was his first trip outside the U.S. Capital, other than trips to visit members of the Cuban Five held in separate prisons around the country.

Obama administration joins calls for investigation into deaths of Cuban dissidents Payá, Cepero

Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, announced on Thursday that the U.S. will join calls for an independent investigation into the deaths of Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Earlier this month, Ángel Carromero, the driver in the accident that killed Payá and Cepero in July of last year, spoke to the Washington Post about the crash and his imprisonment in Cuba, before returning to Spain through an agreement between the two nations.

Since then, six U.S. senators have sent letters the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requesting an investigation into the circumstances of the car crash, reports the Miami Herald.

Ms. Nuland voiced the White House’s support for these requests Thursday:

…the United States supports the calls for an investigation with independent international observers into the circumstances leading to the deaths of Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in Cuba. The people of Cuba and the families of these two activists deserve a clear, credible accounting of the events that resulted in their tragic deaths. The United States will continue to advocate for the rights of all Cubans to speak out in defense of human rights and democracy.

U.S. magazine, OnCuba, to open office in Havana

U.S.-based magazine OnCuba, recently received the permission from Cuba’s government to open an office in Havana, reports EFE. The monthly publication focuses on the arts in Cuba, and also covers themes such as business and the economy. It is currently is distributed on flights between Cuba and the United States and by various booksellers nationwide, and is available digitally. The magazine’s editorial group stated that the Havana office will help OnCuba develop new projects, including contributions to a planned quarterly publication created by expert Cuban designers and artists, for distribution in the United States.


Sugar Cane Production at Risk

Due to broken equipment and organizational problems, this year’s sugar harvest is at risk of not reaching higher production goals, reports AFP. In an article published this week in Granma, Juan Valera Pérez, an expert in sugar production, stated that production problems coupled with damage to crops from Hurricane Sandy will prevent the planned 20% increase from last year’s 1.4 million ton sugar harvest, though he did not indicate by how much. He criticizes the fanfare surrounding this year’s harvest for lacking a solid basis, calling it “harmful boasting.”

State anti-corruption body established

The creation of a new anti-corruption body, the State Control Commission (CEC), was announced by Cuba’s Council of State in the Gaceta Oficial on March 14th, reports Café Fuerte. The CEC’s main objective is to investigate and study reports of corruption within government institutions and to understand its causes in order to prevent future corruption. Gladys Bejerano, Comptroller General and one of Cuba’s five Vice Presidents, will lead the commission, which will be made up of officials from various government ministries and agencies.

Construction cooperatives authorized, farming co-ops increase market share

Marino Murillo, Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning, announced the authorization of cooperatives for building maintenance and renovation, reports Cuba Standard. In support, the Domestic Trade Ministry will also expand sales of construction materials and create wholesale mechanisms. A number of cooperative initiatives for other sectors of the economy have been announced, but the necessary regulations have not yet gone into effect.

Farmers currently make up the majority of Cuba’s cooperative workers and private distribution networks and new state-run wholesale markets are changing how Cubans purchase food, Reuters reports. Farming cooperatives are increasingly selling their products directly to private kiosks and stalls making up over 40% of food sales last year in a market that five years ago only represented 15%. Private cooperatives in both farming and sales have largely outperformed their state-run counterparts and sell their products at prices lower than retail. Earlier this month, Cuba’s government announced the creation of a wholesale market on the Isle of Youth, the first of its kind in Cuba, to sell food products, as well as consumer and industrial goods for those in the state and private sector.

Cuba to produce environmentally friendly cement

Cuba will begin producing “green” cement starting this April in the central province of Sancti Spiritus, reports EFE. The innovative ingredients emit 32% less CO2 into the atmosphere and the manufacturing process uses 29% less energy than conventional methods. The project comes as a result of joint research between the Lausanne Polytechnic University in Switzerland and the Universidad Central Marta Abreu in Villa Clara.

Cuban video game makes virtual revolution

Cuban programmers have developed a game that allows players to fight virtually in the Cuban revolution, reports The Associated Press. Starting from the boarding of the Granma boat in Mexico and continuing through various battles in the Sierra Maestra, gamers assume the roles of revolutionaries with attributes similar to revolutionary heroes like Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Developers stated that they hoped help players identify with Cuban history and a movement in which many of their grandparents played a role.

Around the Region

U.S. State Department continues aid to Honduran police despite allegations of abuse

A recent investigation finds that U.S. State Department funding continues to go to Honduran National Police (HNP) forces that are under scrutiny for abuse, reports the Associated Press. Congress prohibited by law the U.S. sending aid to forces connected to human rights violations; yet, a report by the AP has linked U.S. aid to HNP officers operating under Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, who has been accused of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Honduran law states that every police officer falls under the jurisdiction of the Director General, but official statements from Honduras’ government say that no aid goes to Bonilla. Allegations against Bonilla led to a freeze of $30 million in aid last August, though most of this funding has since been restored. The AP also reports that the State Department announced last week that Honduran security forces are to receive another $16.3 million in aid.

Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet announces candidacy for re-election

After leaving her post as leader of U.N. Women, the international body’s agency for gender equality, Chile’s former President Michelle Bachelet returned home and announced her candidacy in the November 17 presidential election, reports the BBC.

Bachelet, Chile’s only female president, held office from 2006 until 2010. Expectations and support for Bachelet are high, reports the Pan-American Post; but, if elected, she would face significant pressure to reform Chile’s education system and to increase mining royalties. Bachelet said her primary goal as president would be to reduce income inequality, which she says has been “the main reason for the anger” that many Chileans feel toward the current government of President Sebastián Piñera.

Trial of Ríos Montt: “They only came to kill”: more testimony on massacres, as outside protest claims no genocide occurred, Emi Mac Lean, Open Society Justice Initiative

Emi MacLean of the Open Society Justice Initiative reports on the progress of the historic trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, former dictator of Guatemala. Ríos Montt is the first former head of state to stand trial for genocide in his own country. Trial proceedings have entered a recess until April 1st.

Salvadorans honor slain Archbishop Oscar Romero, 33 years after death

Hundreds of Salvadorans marched in San Salvador last Sunday in honor the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980, reports the Associated Press. Many of the faithful held signs urging the canonization of Romero into sainthood ; a process begun 17 years ago, bogged down under the previous two popes, but that many hope will be realized under Pope Francis I. Given the current pope’s emphasis on ministering to the poor, many see a connection between Francis’ message and Romero’s ministry.

Recommended Reading

For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun, Roberto Zurbano, New York Times

After half a century of revolution, Rodrigo Zurbano says Cuba has still not overcome its legacy of racial exclusion. Zurbano hopes that greater participation in Cuban politics by blacks and women will help bridge the racial divide on the island.

Young Computer Scientists in Cuba Short of OpportunitiesIvet González, IPS

Ivet González of IPS outlines the issues facing young graduates of computer engineering programs in Cuba. Over 10,000 young people graduated in 2012 with degrees in computer science, electronics, or other technical specialties, but many found that the industry in Cuba simply does not generate enough jobs to match their field of study.

VP Diaz-Canel: Cuba’s man on the make, Nick Miroff, Global Post

Nick Miroff analyses the ascent of Miguel Diaz-Canel to the top of Cuba’s government. Since his election as First Vice-President of the Council of State, Diaz-Canel has become an increasingly public figure. Diaz-Canel is seen as an accessible person, with a reputation as a “technocratic manager.” Representing a younger generation within Cuba’s politics, he has expressed his support for President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.

Why the U.S. Should be Paying Attention to Cuba, Karina Marquez, Latin America Working Group

Karina Marquez of LAWG reports on the presentation by Jose Cabañas, Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., given last week at American University in Washington, D.C. Cabañas discussed the economic reforms and other initiatives being pursued by Cuba’s government, that were initially laid out by the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines adopted in 2011. Cabañas also emphasized his government’s willingness to establish “normal relations” with the United States in order to promote dialogue on issues affecting both countries, such as drug trafficking and migration.

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