It's time for baseball diplomacy, Baltimore style.
The Cuban national team arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night, clearing the final political and logistical hurdles that stood in the way of tonight's historic game against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
The Canadian charter jet carrying the Cuban all-stars and a large contingent of sports officials, former players and youth athletes touched down shortly after 8 p.m. It was greeted by an official welcoming party that included Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Major League Baseball Vice President Sandy Alderson. Thetraveling party of more than 300 then was ushered away for the hourlong process of passing through immigration and customs checkpoints.
Fear of defections by members of the all-star team had prompted Cuban sports officials to request stringent security measures at BWI and at the delegation's headquarters at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, but Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials who processed the flight indicated last night that they did not have any "jumpers" -- travelers requesting political asylum.
There had been speculation Saturday night that the trip might run aground over a disagreement between Cuban officials and the State Department about the number of visas issued to the Cuban delegation, but Alderson said that he never felt the Cuban visit would fall through.
"I think there was concern about what had happened," said Alderson, "but I don't think that ultimately this was going to break down over that issue."
The visa issue was settled, in much the same way as similar problems that erupted in Cuba in the days leading up to the Orioles visit in March, but the plane arrived several hours later than originally scheduled, forcing the Cubans to cancel a scheduled workout at Oriole Park.
"Everything went fine," said Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos. "There were some issues with the visas and security that were resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.
"The last 72 hours, my brother [Louis] and I and Tom Marudas have been working diligently with the Cuban advance team. There were never any problems at all. Everything was worked out. I think all of us feel pretty good about the fact that this is starting to come to fruition."
The flight left Havana at approximately 5 p.m., after Cuban leader Fidel Castro saw the 25-member team off at Jose Marti International Airport. Castro, whose high-profile presence at the March 28 game against the Orioles at Cuba's Latin American Stadium added heavy political overtones to the event, also attended the team's workouts during the week leading up to yesterday's departure.
Castro's involvement has further rankled members of the staunchly anti-Castro Cuban exile community, many of whom planned to travel from Florida and several other states to demonstrate against the goodwill baseball exchange.
There were demonstrators at BWI's international terminal, but not the type who have become most commonly identified with the controversial baseball exchange.
The loudest voice in the Cuban-American community emanates from Miami, where a strong anti-Castro movement all but controls the agenda, but several Cuban-American groups showed up at BWI to demonstrate their support for the Orioles' Cuba initiative.
"The perception of the press is that we are so polarized, that we are either for or against Castro," said Delvis Fernandez, president of the Cuban American Alliance, a Washington group that is licensed by the U.S. State Department to transport humanitarian aid to the Cuban people. "I think that is a remnant of the Cold War.
"We are an organization of Cuban-Americans who support engagement in cultural events and sporting events. We represent a cross-section of the Cuban-American community that supports baseball, or musical events and anything that could lead to a relationship of mutual benefit to both countries."
The Cuban American Alliance brought no placards or banners, choosing to present members of the organization as more of a welcoming committee than a group of political demonstrators. The more visible Howard County Friends of Latin America sold T-shirts that expressed support for tonight's game. The Maryland Coalition to End the U.S. Embargo Against Cuba and the All Peoples Congress painted placards as members waited for the plane to arrive from Havana.
Chelsea Wheeler, 11, busily painted a sign that said "Cuba Rocks" while her mother explained why they had come to BWI to welcome the Cuban contingent.
Tina Wheeler of Baltimore said she became involved in the movement to end the embargo after her 16-year-old daughter, Anita, traveled to Cuba in 1997 for the 14th International Festival for Youth and Students.
"She lived there for two weeks and it was wonderful for her," Wheeler said. "She said these people are just like us and they care about the things we care about."