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.

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