Bullying Cuba out of ballpark

December 27, 2005|By WAYNE S. SMITH

The Treasury Department's recent announcement that it would not grant a license for a Cuban baseball team to participate in the World Baseball Classic planned for March was deeply disappointing but hardly a surprise.

On the contrary, it was in keeping with the Bush administration's policy of trying to seal off all contact with the Caribbean island. Cuban academics are no longer given visas to come to the United States for conferences. American scholars find it increasingly difficult to carry out programs in Cuba because of tightening U.S. restrictions.

Delegations of Cuban religious leaders are more often than not refused visas to come to the United States. Even Cuban-Americans are barred from annual visits to their families on the island; rather, they can visit only once every three years, and there are no emergency provisions. If a Cuban-American visits his mother in June and receives word in September that the mother is dying, too bad. He can't go back to be at her bedside. No, he will have to wait three years and then visit her grave.

Against that background, it was expected that the Bush administration would bar Cuba from the World Baseball Classic. The reason given by the Treasury Department was that the U.S. embargo against Cuba "prohibits entering into contracts in which Cuba or Cuban nationals have an interest."

But Peter G. Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, is quoted as doubting that the motive was financial; rather, he thought it was "a continuation of the vendetta."

The organizers of the event are trying to find a way to reverse Treasury's initial decision. And several congressmen, including Democrat Jose E. Serrano of New York, are also insisting that the decision be changed. At this point, the prospects do not appear promising.

Never mind that baseball is Cuba's national sport, as it is ours. Cuba took it up back in the late 19th century, only shortly after it was invented in the United States. And, if anything, it has become even more of a passion in Cuba than in this country. Remember that in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, the old Cuban fisherman, dreams of the great Joe DiMaggio as he drifts through the Gulf Stream with the monster swordfish on the end of his line.

Baltimoreans will be especially puzzled by the Bush administration's refusal to permit Cuban participation. They, after all, remember that a Cuban team played in Baltimore against the Orioles in 1999 - and won - after the Orioles had played in Havana - and won - a few months before. Didn't that require a contract?

What harm did it do - to the United States or to baseball? Was U.S. security somehow compromised? Not in the least. Nor would it be by the games in March.

As Mr. Angelos put it the other day: "Once again, the U.S., this huge colossus, the strongest country in the world, is picking on this tiny little country of 11 million. And for what? For their participation in an international baseball event? That seems to me to make us look like the big, bad bully that our non-admirers say we look like."

Well said.

And the Orioles' games were not Baltimore's first baseball contact with Cuba.

In 1986, during the second Ronald Reagan administration, the Johns Hopkins team played three games in Havana against a Cuban all-star team. Hopkins won one and lost two. But far more important than the outcome of the games were the spirit of camaraderie and sportsmanship in which they were played and the cordial, enthusiastic reaction of the Cuban crowd that stood respectfully when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played.

I accompanied the team to Havana and upon my return wrote the following in The Sun of May 22, 1986:

"The heartwarming experience of the Hopkins team confirmed the wisdom of the traditional American policy of not mixing sports and politics - of leaving sports as an area in which Americans could compete in a civilized way even with the citizens of countries with which the U.S. has serious disagreements. It is a policy from which we never should have strayed and to which we should return without reservations."

How very sad that nearly 20 years later, we are further away than ever from a traditional policy that had served us so well - even if the Treasury decision is overturned and the Cubans are allowed to play.

Wayne S. Smith, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University and the director of its Cuba Exchange Program, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. His e-mail is wsmith@gmail.com.

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