WASHINGTON -- After a monthlong dispute between Washington and Havana over how to spend the profits from any Orioles-Cuba baseball games, both sides are close to concluding that the money involved is too small to argue about, sources close to the negotiations say.
This new understanding gives a big boost to prospects for the exhibition games, a longtime dream of Orioles owner Peter Angelos -- and in the nick of time. Baseball officials have said that time is running out to prepare for the games before the start of this year's baseball season next month.
Sources say that gate receipts from the games will be eaten up largely by expenses and many tickets will be discounted. TV advertising profits will also be small, they say. Rights are controlled by Major League Baseball, not the Orioles. And as each day passes without a firm schedule for the games, the chances of getting advertisers interested are shrinking, the sources say.
When the Clinton administration allowed the Orioles to negotiate with Cuba over plans for the games, it required that any proceeds be used to benefit the Cuban people and not profit the regime of Fidel Castro.
U.S. officials suggested that they be distributed by a group such as Caritas, the church aid agency affiliated with Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.
Cuba took offense at what it perceived was an effort by the United States to dictate how the proceeds would be used. Havana proposed instead that any profits go to Cuban doctors who are helping the Central American victims of Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged Central America last year.
After informal discussions involving intermediaries, both sides seem likely to put off the argument until they can see whether there really are any proceeds, said one source close to the discussions.
"As events have played out and reality has become apparent, it is now clear that in all likelihood there will be no proceeds beyond costs," said a source close to the negotiations. "The attempt now is to get both parties -- the United States government and Cuba -- to focus on that and realize that a battle over the use of proceeds is simply an empty exercise."
A spokesman for the Cuban interest section in Washington did not return a call seeking comment yesterday. But the White House sounded flexible.
"Once we hear back from the discussions the Orioles have had with Cuban officials, we can look at the merits of the agreement reached and see if that's acceptable under our policy," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
"We heard informally that there are efforts under way to have the games take place without generating any proceeds," Hammer said. "If that is in fact what is worked out, we will have to review it, but we welcome Angelos' continued hard efforts to have the games occur and hope he is successful."
Hammer said that if there were no proceeds, the administration would have to examine the games' merits "in terms of people-to-people contact" between the Americans and Cubans.
The administration opened the way for the games in early January. At the same time, it announced a series of steps to increase unofficial contact between Americans and Cubans.
Other steps included allowing more people to send money to Cubans, opening direct mail service, permitting the sale of food to independent organizations and sales of fertilizers and pesticides to private farmers and cooperatives.
Except for the possible Orioles exhibition game, the initiative drew a negative reaction from Havana. Since then, the Castro regime has taken steps to tighten control over the Cuban population, further clouding prospects for an improvement in relations.
Late last week, authorities detained dozens of pro-democracy activists, apparently in an effort to prevent them from staging protests during a trial of four well-known opposition figures. The government released many of them yesterday after the trial ended.
Pub Date: 3/03/99