WHEN THE first batter from Cuba's all-star team steps to the plate tomorrow at Camden Yards, thousands of baseball fans in the stadium and watching on television will be treated to a unique example of sports diplomacy -- and a new inning in the long and acrimonious history of United States-Cuban relations.
On the level playing field of the baseball diamond, there will be no hint of decades of U.S. efforts to invade Cuba, to assassinate Fidel Castro and to overthrow his government. There will be no evidence of Cuba's long-past practice of supporting revolution against U.S.-backed governments in the Third World. Instead, the talents and professional conduct of players from two very different nations will be on display. If the first game, played in Havana on March 28 is any indication, this rematch will thrill baseball fans on both sides of the Florida straits.
The U.S and Cuban governments are playing down the political significance of this competition. But in the 40 years since the advent of Fidel Castro's revolution -- years dominated by U.S. hostility and aggression -- every gesture and every event has reverberated politically in U.S.-Cuban ties. Baseball, despite its nonpolitical nature, will be no exception.
When the Baltimore Orioles traveled to Havana last month, I was fortunate enough to go along to witness the historic international matchup. The connection the team made with the Cuban people was evident before the game began. When Brady Anderson deliberately fouled off the pitches from the 80-something-year-old former baseball great who threw out the first ball, (instead of whacking it over the fence) he instantly endeared the Orioles' to the Cuban nation. Baseball "provides a cultural common denominator," said Richard Shaeffer, a Baltimore sports agent who along with Washington journalist Scott Armstrong first broached the idea of going to Cuba to the Orioles management in 1995. For Armstrong, the cultural exchange on the playing field represented "people-to-people diplomacy" at its best.
Anderson, Charles Johnson, Albert Belle and the other players weren't the only baseball diplomats. Armstrong and Shaeffer negotiated and agreement with the U.S. State Department and the Cuban government to bring a planeload of kids from the Baltimore-Washington area. They played several pickup games with Cuban youngsters and as a gesture of goodwill gave away most of their mitts and other equipment.
"When we arrived, Cubans greeted us with hugs and high fives," Anthony Brown, one of the youngsters, wrote in his travel journal. A teammate, Anthony Taylor, reported that, "I gave them the same respect they showed me."
As a precondition for allowing the youngsters and their chairpersons to go to Havana, the State Department provided a "briefing book" on U.S.-Cuban relations. The white binder contained articles and official statements on Castro's crackdown against dissidents, as well as a "Chronology of Cuban Affairs."
But the chronology conveniently omitted the most egregious U.S. acts against Cuba over the years: the CIA's efforts to assassinate Castro between 1960 and 1965. Nor did it contain any reference to the extensive destabilization program known as Operation Mongoose -- in 1962, the largest and most expensive covert operation ever mounted by the U.S. government against another nation.
These acts of aggression set the tone for four decades of U.S. hostility toward Cuba. Even after the Soviet Union's collapse and the Cold War's end, the United States remains stuck in the past, unable to break the grip of a strong, if small, anti-Castro lobby in a key electoral state, Florida. The result is that the United States has maintained a punitive policy of isolating Cuba, through trade embargoes and diplomatic pressure, as the rest of the world has pragmatically established normal relations with Castro's government. In the end, our policy has done more to isolate ourselves than the Cubans.
For its part, the Cuban government wants to be treated as a sovereign nation. Yes, it is a repressive communist government -- but the United States has had normal, albeit difficult, relations with many such nations. If Washington can work out a modus vivendi with Vietnam the United States can certainly normalize relations with a neighbor 90 miles away, many Cubans believe.
Over the past 18 months, the status quo in U.S.-Cuba policy has begun to slip. The January 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba, during which he urged the United States to "change, change" its punitive posture, dramatically bolstered the concept of a dialogue with Castro.
The emergence of a business lobby, Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, led by big name corporate players such as David Rockefeller and Paul A. Volcker, brought a powerful new set of voices into the debate.