Let the Orioles play ball in Cuba Proposal: The O's should play an exhibition game in Havana against the Cuban National Team. The event could do a world of good.

March 22, 1998|By KURT L. SCHMOKE

Here's a proposal for consideration and debate: Next year, the Baltimore Orioles should play an exhibition game against the Cuban National Team in Havana. Why? Follow my thoughts for a moment.

I visited Havana recently at the invitation of an organization called the Center for International Policy. The delegation I joined was relatively small and included a former U.S. senator, a retired general, two former U.S. diplomats and two businessmen with ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Each had his or her own reasons for joining this trip. My particular interest was to learn as much as I could about the lives of the average citizens in a country so cloaked in mystery for most Americans.

Actually, I had not thought much about Cuba until last year when a group of Baltimore-area Cuban-Americans asked me for assistance in acquiring land to erect a monument honoring Jose Marti. I returned to my history books to refresh my recollection of Jose Marti and was reminded that he was one of the most inspiring freedom fighters of this hemisphere. He was a writer, a soldier, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and a leader of a revolution in the same sense that this country's Founding Fathers were.

On my trip to Havana, I saw that his image dominates great public spaces, and I felt his spirit still very much alive in the Cuban people as they spoke to me about their fondest hopes for the country.

In preparation for the trip, I read a number of documents ranging from congressional hearing testimony to recent speeches by Pope John Paul II. Numerous magazine and newspaper articles about Cuba were sent to me. I even received a request from a local businessman who hoped I could deliver a letter to his college roommate who lives in Cuba. (By the way, I personally delivered the letter to the gentleman's home in Havana. All politics is local.)

The various sources of material I read seemed to view Cuba with two sets of eyes: one physical, the other political. It appeared that the sources agreed on what their eyes saw, but there were vast differences in emphasis and interpretation about what messages were conveyed by these images. Why these points of view vary so dramatically became evident after a couple of days of meetings with people representing all walks of Cuban life.

Our delegation had hour-long meetings with high-level government officials, including: the president of the National Assembly, the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of public health, the minister of economy and planning and others. We also met with leaders of nongovernmental organizations involved with humanitarian aid, such as Caritas, the affiliate of Catholic Relief Services, and a federation of opposition groups called the Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

During the meeting with the commission, we spoke to a man recently released from jail after 13 months. His release came as a result of the pope's intervention. His "offense" was to publicly question the Cuban government's commitment to certain international human rights accords. He is a classic example of a political prisoner shackled for this thoughts, not for his actions against people or property.

Surprisingly, all of the people we met, whether government officials, clergy, or those in opposition to President Fidel Castro's regime urged us to do whatever we could to persuade the United States to modify its policy - a policy that imposes an economic blockade on Cuba.

I'm no foreign policy expert, and I recognize that reasonable people will differ about our government's official stance toward Cuba, so I won't spend time in this space trying to describe the successes and failures of the economic sanctions. However, anyone who has been to Cuba, and as I did, concentrated on people-to-people contact rather than government-to-government rhetoric, has to seriously question the rationale behind a lingering Cold War policy devised to topple a government leader who has, nonetheless, remained in power since 1959.

It should also make U.S. citizens a little uncomfortable that, while our government relies so heavily on the judgment of the United Nations when we want to take action in Iraq, for example, it totally ignores the United Nations when that body consistently condemns the Cuban embargo for violating fundamental principles of international law.

And it should not be forgotten that while the pope was highly critical of Castro's record on human rights, he was also critical of the U.S. government for the trade embargo's harm to average Cuban citizens.

Stated more simply, the "New World Order" that our nationally elected officials announced years ago, which permitted us to open embassies in China and Vietnam, seems to have an exception relating to Cuba. This defies logic.

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