Baseball Big and Little: Its Role in U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuban Baseball Cap with an offical pin from the game.In March 1998, the Baltimore Orioles flew to Cuba to play its national team in Havana. In a well-pitched game the O’s won 3-2, in the 13th inning. Two months later, the Cubans routed the birds in Baltimore. During the games, talent agents from various teams from both leagues took detailed notes about the Cuban players. Indeed, such careful studying, if practiced by U.S. diplomats in Havana, might actually teach Washington policymakers something about the nature of Cuba. But given the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, this may happen when fish learn to sing opera.

The games did not, as we know, lead to Washington’s lifting of its embargo or travel ban. Baseball diplomacy led to the defection in 2002 of Cuba’s star pitcher, Jose Contreras, who had held the Orioles to two runs in nine innings. But instead of joining the O’s, he signed with the New York Yankees for millions of dollars. Even in the 21st Century, Dollar Diplomacy still functions.

The Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos, according to an accompanying sports writer, “was pissed. He wanted Contreras, but didn’t bid high enough. Why else would he force his team to fly to Cuba for a day?”

The banal explanation unfortunately made sense. Angelos had not shown himself to care deeply about social issues, other than those affecting his fortune. For major league baseball, the visit marked the first time a pro team played in Cuba since Havana was dropped from the AAA International League in 1960. Let’s face it, sports fans, baseball, like most of the great cultural institutions of our country, is a major multi-billion dollar business. Matters of state take a very second place.

Before the crowds filled Havana’s stadium to watch the Orioles take on the Cubans, however, teams of kids from the Baltimore-Washington area played their Havana counterparts. Parents and kids of the Cubans and Americans met each other and talked. The baseball excuse for a visit – okayed by the Clinton Administration – also fostered dialogue between Cuban and U.S. baseball nuts. Fidel, in his box seat, cheered for his team. The Cuban crowd and the handful of U.S. visitors who got tickets behaved politely. I noticed neither heavy drinking nor Santeria spells being cast on the visiting Orioles – practices not uncommon in Cuban league games.

But the relative success of the exchange came to a halt when the Cuban team departed Baltimore. Four years later, in 2002, the Bush administration imposed draconian limits – raising fines for unlicensed travelers and limiting the amount Cubans in the United States could send their relatives on the island – on travel. Since then, no hints of sports diplomacy have wafted through Washington’s muggy air – until July 8, that is. When Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) learned about a scheduled trip of 11- and 12-year-old kids from Vermont and New Hampshire to Havana, he suffered a near panic attack. He then demanded an emergency meeting with officials from the State Department and Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The obedient executive branch agency obeyed and scheduled the session.

Diaz-Balart and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), who also represents a south Florida district filled with Cuban exiles, get their knickers in a twist whenever they learn of any event that might even slightly dent the harsh rules of embargo and travel ban that they along with the other members of the Hate-Castro industry. For the Diaz-Balart brothers, and their female counterpart from south Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-FL) limiting travel to Cuba ranks far higher on the priority scale than the banal issues facing constituents in their districts – like unemployment, foreclosures, school drop outs and lack of health care.

Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers help guide the small but influential Cuba Democracy Caucus on Capital Hill. On July 10, this bastion of Castro haters invited all Members to an “important” meeting with Bisa Williams, Coordinator for the State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs, and Barbara Hammerle, Deputy Director of OFAC.

At the meeting, according to the invitation, Diaz-Balart planned “to discuss the very troubling granting of a Treasury/OFAC license to a little league team to travel to Cuba in August.”

Members like the Diaz Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen have pressured the Bush administration to convert OFAC into a Cuba monitoring agency. Some naïve Members may have thought OFAC actually looked into al-Qaeda and bin Laden money transactions, but an AP story reported that OFAC, supposedly responsible for “blocking terrorists’ financial sources,” confessed in a letter to Congress that only four of its full-time employees investigated Osama bin Laden’s fortune. But 25 OFAC officials monitored U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and other supposed violations of the embargo and travel ban.

Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus noted that instead of the agency playing a key role in the war on terrorism, it interferes with Americans touring Cuba on bicycles.

From 1990 to 2003, OFAC monitors did 93 investigations into terrorism, and since 1994, have collected just $9,425 in fines related to violations of regulations against the funding of such activity. During that period, they opened 10,683 investigations related to Cuba and collected more than $8 million in fines, mostly from individuals who traveled to Cuba without licenses or from Cubans who sent more remittances to their families than the regulations permitted.

To emphasize how OFAC operates as an arm of the anti-Castro industry, Ted Levin, a coach for the Vermont team, said it took him “Twenty months and three rejections before OFAC approved the trip in April.”

Lincoln Diaz-Balart offers the rational of “punishing” Castro by denying money to Cuba. Vermont’s Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R) scoffed at such notions because he believes the trip “will lead to a better and more secure world and I believe it’s through grass-roots connections of people-to-people and baseball teams playing one another that we expand our understanding and that’s consistent with the objectives of our initial trips to Cuba.”

Vermont’s two Senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and Independent Bernard Sanders, also backed the informal mini baseball diplomacy trip as did New Hampshire Republican Senators Judd Gregg and John Sununu as well as the Democratic House Members, Paul Hodes (NH) and Peter Welch (VT).

One group that would seem to have a horse in the race has been silent on the issue. Major league baseball mavens seem unconcerned since talent scouts are not on the invitation list and thus no serious recruitment could get done.

Despite the concerns from the anti-Castro crowd, OFAC issued travel licenses for 14 players and coaches. Leahy backed the decision saying he didn’t “like the idea of the government telling ordinary Americans, let alone Little Leaguers, where and when they can travel. If the president can go to China at taxpayers’ expense, these kids ought to be able to go on a privately paid trip to Cuba to play some baseball.”

The Diaz Balarts and Ros Lehtinen seem to share “bicameral minds,” as sociologist Nelson Valdes puts it. In one mind chamber they claim Cuba is a terrorist state and must be isolated, and in another call for the assassination of Fidel Castro. All three have championed the causes of self-proclaimed bombers Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch – responsible for downing a Cubana airliner and killing all 73 aboard and now demand a pardon for Eduardo Arocena, who was convicted of assassinating a Cuban diplomat in New York City and attempting to bomb Cuban UN ambassador Raul Roa in 1980 and several other assassinations and bombings. He’s not a terrorist, according to those requesting Bush to free him, he’s a freedom fighter. Indeed, he has fought freedom very dramatically.

That the power of such morally bipolar legislators captured the Bush administration’s Cuba policy is in itself frightening. But while Bush is leaving town, the anti-Castro team isn’t. And they will have more games to rally against. On August 5, the AP reported that in December the baseball team from the University of Alabama will play a Cuban team in Havana. Such news might cause an outbreak of hemorrhoids for the Diaz Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen, a new meaning for The Crimson Tide.

Perhaps the young athletes from New England and Alabama can bring down the level of government irrationality a peg or two. Play Ball!

Saul Landau is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.