Hardball precedes O's-Cuba contest

U.S., exiles, Orioles throw last-minute curves at visitors

Schedule is unsettled

Problems with visas, planes and tickets

April 30, 1999|By Joe Mathews and Mark Matthews | Joe Mathews and Mark Matthews,SUN STAFF

Two days before Cuba's national baseball team and a delegation of 300 are scheduled to touch down at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, last-minute skirmishes between the Orioles, exile groups and both governments have embarrassed the Cubans and left much of the weekend's schedule up in the air.

The slights and gamesmanship that are hallmarks of Cuban-American relations have slowed behind-the-scenes planning in recent days. A top Cuban politician who had wanted to lead the delegation withdrew when it appeared he would be denied a visa. Cuban officials also grumbled that their ticket and security requests were not honored. Even their planes to the game remained an issue.

Since 1997, when the families of three Cuban-Americans won a $188 million federal court verdict against Cuba for shooting down their unarmed planes and killing the pilots, prominent exiles have tried to collect. After hints that they might try to seize Cuban government planes at BWI, Cuban officials decided yesterday to eschew their national airline and hire charters.

"This is all just a reminder that relations are still poor," says Wayne Smith, a supporter of the game who is director of the academic exchange program with Cuba at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for International Policy in Washington. "The game is sui generis. We have bad relations, but we can play baseball."

The Orioles released yesterday a preliminary schedule for the weekend, including a noon rally today at the Inner Harbor, complete with Cuban music and appearances by Orioles players and coaches. But the list was most notable for the absence of information about the Cuban guests of honor.

The Cubans themselves have been elusive. The first members of the delegation -- radio and television crews -- were due to arrive last night, with the bulk of the delegation arriving after noon Sunday. But the appointed hour has varied -- yesterday it was 5: 30. The Cubans say they will probably stay at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, but offer no assurances.

Other possible events include: an invitation-only event Sunday night with Orioles owner Peter Angelos as host, team workouts Sunday and Monday, and a game between Baltimore Little Leaguers and 25 Cuban children who are supposed to be in the delegation. "A lot of those kinds of things probably won't be worked out until the last minute," said Baltimore Police Col. Bert Shirey.

The only certainty in the schedule -- say Orioles, security and Cuban officials -- is Monday night's game.

"There is still no schedule," said Luis M. Fernandez, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section, that country's quasi-embassy in Washington. "There are many things to be finalized -- the visas, and the threats to do something to our planes "

A focal point of the game's conflicts yesterday was Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Fidel Castro. An avid baseball fan, he was a crucial figure in the final negotiations for the home-and-home series between Cuba and Baltimore.

On Tuesday, a senior Cuban official in Washington visited The Sun and announced, beaming, that Alarcon would lead the trip's nearly 300-person delegation. Scott Armstrong, a writer who has played a behind-the-scenes role in making the games happen, said yesterday that he had approached the State Department and National Security Council earlier this month about Alarcon's accompanying the Cuban team, and "they said there shouldn't be a problem."

More recently, though, the administration adopted a negative attitude toward Alarcon, making it clear he wouldn't get a visa, Armstrong said. He attributes this to Alarcon's suggestions that the baseball games offered a way around the U.S. embargo against Cuba and to Alarcon's criticism of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Two administration officials denied this version. "We never expressed any sense of receptivity or encouragement that Alarcon come to the game," said a senior administration official. "We didn't express any interest in having him come."

Another official said it's "quite possible" Alarcon's name came up at some point, but it "was never a subject of serious discussion." He noted that no high-ranking American official accompanied the Orioles to Cuba.

Although the State Department never faced a final decision on the visa, the department had previously blocked Alarcon from addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).

"Our policy is not to issue visas to senior Cuban officials unless they're here for international events," the official said. The head of Cuba's central bank was allowed into Washington last week for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting. The ASNE meeting wasn't comparable, the official said.

Some Cuba watchers suggested the governments may have been playing games.

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