Ninety miles south of Key West, Florida, lies Havana, the capital of the island of Cuba. But for its geographic proximity, most Americans know little of the culture on the island outside of the unique role Cuba and its ruler Fidel Castro played during the history of the Cold War.
While Cuba is open to the rest of the world, its tumultuous relationship with the United States has led to an aura of mystique surrounding the island nation. We hear of Cuba in the context of the United States military base at Guantanamo Bay. We hear of Cuba when high-profile Cubans defect to America. Sports stars escape the grip of Fidel Castro to bring baseball teams to the World Series. We hear of Cuba when Fidel Castro makes another anti-American statement or when embargos are enacted.
Meanwhile, the island itself is a fascinating study in culture. Just a short plane ride from Florida, but inaccessible to many in the United States, the nation of Cuba with its population of 11 million has no official way of getting information from the United States. The only U.S.-based radio stations broadcast to Cuba are Radio Free Cuba and Voice of America. But despite all of this, baseball is incredibly popular in Cuba. In fact, it may even be more popular in Cuba than it is in the United States of America.
I attended an eye-opening session on Cuban baseball this past Friday. Sponsored by Florida International University and the Inter-American Dialogue, Cuba and the World Baseball Classic featured two leading authorities on Cuban baseball and a Cuban-American policy expert discussing Cuban baseball, the upcoming World Baseball Classic, and the conflict between the Treasury Department and Major League Baseball over Cuba’s participation in the tournament.
This week, I want to present my readers with my analysis of the discussion. Kevin Baxter, Miami Herald international baseball writer, and Tim Wendel, Baseball Weekly co-founder and author of The New Face of Baseball: The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America’s Favorite Sport, spoke extensively about Cuban baseball. From tales of super-obsessed fans to the passion in the stands during the Cuban National Series to warning signs that Fidel Castro may pull his team out of the WBC at the last minute, the two brought up so much information on a nation so close to the United States.
Meanwhile, Steve Johnson, the Cuban expert from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington, D.C., provided an overview of the political situation between Cuba and the United States. While Johnson had the least to say about baseball of the three on the panel, his contributions contextualized the discussion. He explained how the rise of Communism so close to the United States during the height of the Cold War ultimately led to the current icy relationship between Cuba and the United States. In fact, his ten-minute introduction set the stage for an explanation of the Treasury decision to deny Cuba initial entrance into the tournament.
In the middle of December, the United States Department of Treasury announced that Cuba could not send a delegation of players to the World Baseball Classic. Because of a long-standing economic embargo against Cuba, the Treasury Department declined to issue a permit for the Cuban team. This embargo stems from a limitation on the commercial transactions between Americans and government organizations from Cuba. Because all teams participating in the World Baseball Classic would be receiving American funds for their participation, the Treasury Department saw this as a violation of the embargo. Thus, they declined Major League Baseball’s request for a permit for Cuba.
A few weeks later, after much political maneuvering by Major League Baseball and members of the government sympathetic to Cuba, the Treasury Department reversed its decision. Cuba could send a team to the tournament on the condition that they do not profit off of the tournament. In turn, Fidel Castro agreed to donate any proceeds from the World Baseball Classic to hurricane-relief organizations helping the island recover from a damaging 2005 hurricane season.
During his analysis of the situation, Johnson was highly critical of the Treasury Department’s attempts at shutting Cuba out of the tournament. While Americans often view Cuba as a country in need of democratization, the American government, Johnson argued, should work to improve its own image among the inhabitants of Cuba. We shouldn’t just be seen as a threat to the Cuban government. Stressing collaboration through sports, Johnson spoke of the need to win what amounts to propaganda battles in Cuba. While Castro spouts off anti-American rhetoric to a captive audience, the United States has to earn the trust of the Cuban people if the American-Cuban relationship is to improve during and, arguably more importantly, after Castro’s lifetime.
By allowing the Cubans into the World Baseball Classic, Johnson argued, it puts politics in the background. “The thing we have to gain is their opportunity to see the United States and to have a fellowship through sports,” he said. “In baseball, we can begin to recognize others on the island who are as big on Cuba as Castro is. We can show our flag in ways that do not threaten the government.”
The future of U.S.-Cuba interactions is very much up for grabs. Castro, who turns 80 in August, will not be around forever, and the fight for the political future of Cuba is sure to invoke U.S. intervention once El Presidente passes on. Meanwhile, Cuba and America have much in common, and Americans should be looking for ways to reach out to Cubans to show a compassionate side. A deep passion for baseball, the national sport of these two countries, is as good a starting place as any.
With the World Baseball Classic just a few weeks away, Cubans may earn a different glimpse of American society. This time, Cubans will see many players they consider heroes. They will compete against the Derek Jeter’s, Mark Teixeira’s, David Ortiz’s, and Johan Santana’s. And the Cuban National Team, Gold medal finalists in 2004, will battle for the tournament’s top spot.
So as Cuban baseball fans – and that is, according to Baxter and Wendel, all 11 million Cubans – and the National Team prepares for this tournament, the world will just have to wait and see what the future holds for American-Cuban dialogues. The common language of baseball could just serve to unite two neighboring countries. That is, if Cuba participates in the tournament. It is no sure thing.