Major-league security planned for Cuba game

Politics makes contest with O's Monday highly sensitive event

April 27, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

During an ordinary Orioles game, 40 Baltimore police officers patrol Camden Yards. The detail is tripled for that most dangerous of stadium events: a visit from the Yankees.

But Monday's game with the Cuban national team -- while only an exhibition -- is quickly shaping up as the World Series of security. After several weeks of work, local and federal law enforcement officials are finalizing plans to assign a level of personnel commensurate with a visit from a president or a pope -- perhaps more than Baltimoreans have ever seen at a baseball game.

The high level of security, officials say, is needed to handle one of the most politically sensitive sporting events in city history. Concern has been heightened by the size of the Cuban delegation -- estimated at 300 -- and by the expected arrival of thousands of protesters from as far away as Miami. Police are scheduled to meet with protest organizers today.

"This will be a citywide mobilization of forces," says Baltimore Police Col. Bert Shirey, a 34-year veteran. "You're going to see more police than you're used to seeing around the ballpark. The event is complicated and presents some unique challenges."

Authorities say they have received no specific threats, and protesters have assured police that they will be peaceful. But police, working closely with the Orioles and Cuban officials, are taking no chances, sketching out a plan for the ballpark tight enough to reassure a totalitarian government.

While exact numbers of law enforcement personnel have not been disclosed, Baltimore police are canceling time off and authorizing overtime to ensure an extra complement of officers from Saturday evening through the Cuban team's expected Tuesday-morning departure. Every Spanish-speaking officer on the force -- about 30 -- is being assigned to the stadium area. The Secret Service is considering a proposal to shut down air traffic over the stadium.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service will have much of its local staff on the scene to handle possible defections. FBI officials are keeping a squad with counter-terrorism experience on hand. The bureau also has called prominent local Cubans and Latinos, asking for information about protests -- a practice that spokesman Peter A. Gulotta calls "routine."

The State Department and Major League Baseball also will have security assigned to the game.

Unresolved details

But five days before the Cubans' Sunday arrival, many details remain unresolved.

The chief concern is protecting the Cuban delegation, which may include 25 children, their chaperones, 35 players and coaches, and diplomats and security personnel. Cuban and law enforcement sources said yesterday that the group is likely to stay at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, but the hotel's general manager said he had not been informed.

Law enforcement officials say that the Cuban delegation will be kept out of public view except for the game.

Defections are a concern, though the Cuban team is likely to be carefully picked to avoid such embarrassment. All police officers involved in the game are being instructed to refer anyone who approaches them about asylum to the INS.

"The big worry for Cuba is not defections," says one source on the Cuban side. "The worry is an embarrassing incident that will tar the game."

Those fears have put two sets of protesters -- one group eager to criticize Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the other urging the end of the U.S. embargo against his country -- in the spotlight. Organizers in both groups estimate that at least 1,000 people will show up.

`Celebrative protest'

Leslie Salgato, a civil engineer from Columbia who chairs the Howard County Friends of Latin America, said her anti-embargo group "will have a celebrative protest, to celebrate the warming of relations with Cuba." A related group, Baltimore Action for Justice in the Americas, is planning to sell white baseball caps with the letters "END THE EMBARGO" in red.

"We'll talk about the suffering in Cuba," says Marjorie Smith, a spokeswoman for BAJA, many of whose members were involved in protesting the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. "But I must say, I was in Cuba last summer, and comparing what I saw there to what I had seen in downtown Baltimore, Cuba is safer and better."

Police say they will keep the anti-embargo forces separated from the anti-Castro marchers, dominated by older Cuban-Americans who came to the United States shortly after the 1959 revolution. Anti-Castro protesters will meet in front of the Jose Marti monument at Fayette Street and Broadway before going to the stadium.

Among those attending will be Dr. Jorge Giro, a Towson University professor and Bay of Pigs veteran who is so upset about the Orioles outreach to Cuba that he canceled his season tickets. Joining Giro will be Miguel Boluda, 68, a Bowie retiree who was once arrested for chaining himself to the gate of the Cuban interests section in Washington.

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