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Béisbol Libre

Cuba may be in the WBC, but don't harbor any illusions about Team Fidel.

11:00 PM, Feb 9, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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IT IS STRANGE for an obscure branch of the U.S. Treasury Department to unite embargo critics, sports fans, Major League Baseball, Puerto Rico's amateur baseball federation, the International Baseball Federation, and the International Olympic Committee in a strident public denunciation of America's Cuba policy. But the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control did the trick in mid-December, when it rejected a license application from baseball officials to sign a contract with Cuba for the inaugural World Baseball Classic, scheduled from March 3 to March 20. Each participant in the tournament, established by MLB and the MLB Players Association, automatically collects a thin slice of the profits; and the Cuban national team had been slated to play its three opening-round games--plus, if necessary, its second-round matches--in Puerto Rico, which is subject to U.S. trade laws. (The semifinals and finals will be held in San Diego.)

"Generally speaking, the Cuba embargo prohibits entering into contracts in which Cuba or Cuban nationals have an interest," explained Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise. "Activities or contracts that could result in financial flows to the Castro regime would effectively work against the objective of the sanctions and be inconsistent with current U.S. foreign policy."

Such logic didn't cut much ice with the "Let Cuba Play Ball" crowd. "Deeply disappointing," said Wayne Smith, the U.S. envoy to Havana under President Carter. "Petty and ham-handed," groused Sports Illustrated senior writer Frank Deford. "In a way, this posture is even more distasteful than when those anti-Semitic countries refuse to play Israel. At least those nations have the strength of their convictions sufficient to take themselves out of the games. We're just being a bully." U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth, a former MLB commissioner, regretted that "this may be the only example of a country prohibiting competition on an international scale."

The Miami Herald editorial page, which favors the U.S. embargo, also opposed the ban on Cuba (albeit with qualifiers). So did anti-embargo congressmen such as Arizona Republican Jeff Flake ("If the U.S. is interested in bringing freedom to Cuba, perhaps we ought to practice a little freedom ourselves.") and New York Democrat José Serrano ("The World Baseball Classic should not be tainted by our grudge against Cuba's government."). Some 90 lawmakers--mostly Democrats, with a few Republicans--signed letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary John Snow, and MLB commissioner Bud Selig, urging them to "put sportsmanship over politics."

Not to be outdone in his outrage was Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a former Democratic city councilman. "Once again, the U.S., this huge colossus, the strongest country in the world, is picking on this tiny, little country of 11 million," he complained. Hardly a stranger to embargo politics or baseball diplomacy--Angelos spent years arranging home-and-home exhibition games between the Orioles and the Cuban national squad in 1999--he bemoaned America's "isolation" of Cuba and the "continuation of a vendetta" against Castro. "It just sullies the hope of what [the World Baseball Classic] would accomplish," Angelos told the New York Times. "The main thing is celebrating and enjoying the game of baseball and bringing these nations together. Why should this cause a disturbance?"

Not surprisingly, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart--a Cuban-American Republican, the nephew of Castro's former wife, and one of the dictator's fiercest opponents in Congress--was ready with an answer. Even before Treasury denied MLB's license request, Diaz-Balart had sent a letter to Selig asking him to veto Team Fidel and instead field a Cuban squad drawn from the exiles and defectors now playing in either MLB or the minors. "It is difficult to believe," he wrote, "that MLB would have invited a team from apartheid-era South Africa to participate in a tournament. Yet you have invited a totalitarian dictatorship which has murdered thousands and imprisoned hundreds of thousands for the 'crime' of supporting freedom and democracy."

Shortly after Treasury's decision, Diaz-Balart reiterated his call in another letter to the MLB chief, this one co-signed by 11 of his colleagues, including three South Florida Democrats. "We urge you to allow a team of free Cuban and Cuban-American players to represent Cuba," it read. Along with his brother, Mario, also a Republican congressman, and another Cuban-American lawmaker, GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart attended a press conference in Miami with four famous Cuban baseball defectors: Euclides Rojas, Osvaldo Fernandez, Eddie Oropesa, and Rene Arocha (the first Cuban defector to play in the majors). "We would like to represent the team of free Cuba," declared Rojas.