Go to bat for Morales

June 20, 2000|By Frank Calzon

WASHINGTON -- When Adelso Morales learned that his son, Andy, was seeking asylum on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in the Florida Straits, he said, "We want him to do what makes him the happiest man in the world, playing baseball."

Andy Morales, at 25, is one of the finest third basemen in baseball. As a member of Cuba's national team, his three-run homer in the ninth inning helped defeat the Baltimore Orioles in May 1999.

That was in the infancy of what was called "baseball diplomacy." Some people even hoped that a new dawn in ordinary people-to-people diplomacy was coming, that Fidel Castro would soften his harsh rule and Cubans would be permitted some of the human rights we take for granted in the United States.

This way of thinking is, however, the equivalent of believing the Orioles will make it to the World Series this year. Some things just don't happen. And in Mr. Castro's Cuba, star athletes don't get permission to leave the national team. It's fine to show the "human face of socialism" at an exhibition game in Baltimore. It's something else to let your young athletes live their lives doing, as Adelso Morales said, what makes them happy.

When Canada granted asylum to several Cuban baseball players who defected during the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg last year, Mr. Castro, showing no gratitude for many years of Canadian trade and development assistance, denounced Canada as "the second enemy to the north."

That's because in communist regimes, athletes are political commodities. East German, Russian and other competitors from the Soviet bloc used to be very important tools of propaganda for the commissars who worked right behind their coaches.

American athletes must deal with management, and management can be ruthlessly greedy. But the game is out in the open: You're in business, you're one of the best, and you cut the best deal you can. You are also free to express an opinion, read any book, travel anywhere. Having communist commissars as management is entirely different.

The top commissar is Mr. Castro, and the only thing he wants is for the athletes to score points for his failed experiment in socialist revolution. He gives star athletes privileges -- apartments with running water and the opportunity denied most Cubans to travel abroad. But ask the Hernandez brothers, Livan and Orlando, what happens if they try to live their own lives.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos may have understood this. It will be impossible to ascertain exactly what he knew until he tells us. But the Orioles put out a statement a few weeks ago saying, in effect, they would under no circumstances hire Cuban players.

Orioles management must have known it expressed a policy that is illegal under U.S. anti-discrimination laws. They retracted the statement. So why did they say it at all? A reasonable hypothesis is that somehow they had learned that Andy Morales was thinking of defecting.

Wanting to avoid any embarrassment -- not to mention jeopardizing what Mr. Angelos calls "people-to-people diplomacy" -- they signaled Morales not to defect. Too late: He got on a boat with 30 other Cubans who, like so many others before them, were willing to risk their lives to find a place where they will have at least a fair shot at doing what makes them happy.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has other ideas. Anyone seeking political asylum in the United States must pass a "credible fear threshold" test. Although the United States supported a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution this year that said Cuba was a systematic violator of human rights, the INS, inexplicably, said, in effect, Andy Morales has nothing to fear, notwithstanding the huge embarrassment he caused his supreme coach.

When he learned his son had failed this test and was being sent back home, despite the growing political repression on the island, (Mr. Castro calls Cubans who disagree with him "gusanos," or worms, "lackeys of imperialism," "traitors to the motherland," Adelso Morales said his son's ball-playing days were over and he could look forward to a career sweeping streets.

He added: "God gives us our destiny and we must accept it. Others have drowned in the ocean. We are grateful Andy is alive."

Would it be too much to ask President Clinton, Mr. Angelos and those associated with the baseball exchange last year to ask Castro to allow Andy Morales the right to emigrate, which is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, a nonprofit human rights organization that disseminates information about Cuba.

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