Baseball Diplomacy or Just Baseball?

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 US diplomats in Havana, might actually teach Washington policy makers something about the nature of Cuba. 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 did, however, lead to the defection in 2002 of Cuba’s star pitcher, Jose Contreras, who had held the Orioles to two runs in nine innings. 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, however, teams of kids from the Baltimore-Washington area played their Havana counterparts through Cuba’s capital city. 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 US baseball nuts. Fidel, in his box seat, cheered for his team. The Cuban crowd and the handful of US visitors who got tickets behaved politely. I noticed neither heavy drinking nor Santeria spells being cast on the visiting Orioles – normal practices in Cuban league games.

Four years later, in 2002, the Bush Administration imposed draconian limits on travel to the island: threatening jail and raising fines for unlicensed travelers and limiting the amount Cubans in the United States could send their relatives on the island. 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 of course obeyed and scheduled the session.

Diaz Balart and his brother Mario, 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 (not quite in the multi billion dollars range yet). For the Diaz Balart brothers, and Ileana Ros Lehtinen, their female souoth Florida counterpart, limiting travel to Cuba ranks far higher on the priority scale than the banal issues facing their constituents –unemployment, foreclosures, school drop outs and lack of health care.

Ros Lehtinen and the Diaz Balart brothers help guide the small but influential – with the Bush family — 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. I have included links to two newspaper articles that provide details on the issue.” (Al Kamen, Washington Post, July 30)

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 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 US 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 held 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, however, 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. (John Solomon, AP, April 29, 2004)

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 “20 months and three rejections before OFAC approved the trip in April.”

Lincoln Diaz Balart offers the rationale of “punishing” Castro by denying money to Cuba. Vermont’s Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie 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.” (Rutland Herald July 31)

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 House Members, democrats Paul Hodes (NH) and Peter Welch (VT).

Major league baseball mavens seem unconcerned since talent scouts didn’t get invited and thus no serious recruitment could get done. OFAC issued travel licenses for only 14 players and a few coaches. But Leahy 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. From one mind chamber comes statements about Cuba being a dangerous terrorist state and therefore meriting isolation; in another, they call for the assassination of Fidel Castro. (Ros Lehtinen in 638 Ways to Kill 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. Now, along with Senator “Holy Joe” Lieberman (I-CT), they 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 nine other 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 has captured the Bush administration’s Cuba policy should in itself be frightening. Imagine when the Diaz Balart brothers and Ros Lehtinen read the August 5 AP dispatch and learn that OFAC has granted licenses to the University of Alabama baseball team! Beyond mood disorders, such news could case a serious attack of hemroids, giving new meaning to the term Crimson Tide.

Meanwhile, these bastions of the anti-Castro industry continue to push hard to free imprisoned anti-Castro industry terrorists. Ah, the fanatics!

Some government officials might see a baseball game as a means to refocus  their Cuba energy, toward athletic competition and away from puerile vengeance.

Play Ball!

In SAUL LANDAU’s 1968 Fidel film, Castro plays baseball. Available on dvd Read his book, A BUSH ANMD BOTOX WORLD (Counterpunch A/K)






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SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.