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.

But none of this had much effect on the International Baseball Federation, which said it would only sanction the World Baseball Classic if Team Cuba--Team Fidel, not the proposed exile-defector squad--was allowed to participate. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's amateur baseball federation temporarily withdrew as a host of the tourney and blasted the Americans for "a violation of the Olympic Charter." Speaking of which, the International Olympic Committee also strongly protested, and at least one of its members, Canada's Dick Pound, said the Cuba ban "would completely scupper" any future U.S. bid to host the Olympic Games.

Peter Ueberroth & Co. can rest easy, for in mid-January the Treasury Department reversed course and gave Cuba the green light to play next month. The about-face came after negotiations among MLB representatives, U.S. officials, and Cuban authorities yielded an acceptable arrangement: Each Cuban player will receive a daily stipend of $100, but the Cuban national baseball federation will not receive any tournament revenues. The State Department may still haggle with Cuba over the number of visas granted. But it looks fairly certain that Fidel's starting nine will be on the diamond in Puerto Rico.

SO HOW WILL THE CUBANS FARE? Pretty darn well, one would think, given their recent run of success: Not only has Cuba won three of the four gold medals awarded since baseball became an Olympic sport in 1992, it's also captured a remarkable 12 of the last 13 baseball World Cups.

But as the Miami Herald has reported, "Cuba might be more interested in returning from next month's World Baseball Classic with a full plane than with a gold medal." After scanning the preliminary Cuban roster, Herald writer Kevin Baxter noticed that "nearly half the roster is made up of aging national team veterans who aren't likely candidates for defection." (According to Baxter, Cuba "has lost approximately 100 players to defection since 1991.") Sports agent Joe Kehoskie, who has represented over a dozen Cuban baseball defectors, told the New York Times that Cuba's player list appeared to be "based more on loyalty than current performance."

Which gets to the harsh reality of Cuba's national pastime. Fidel Castro formally nixed professional baseball--the old Cuban League--in 1961 and introduced "revolutionary baseball," in which Cuba's baseball federation became just one more tentacle of the Communist bureaucracy. "The model was naturally the Soviet one, but is parallel to what was developed in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the Thirties," writes Yale professor Roberto González Echevarría in The Pride of Havana, his exhaustive history of Cuban baseball. "The vigilance exercised over the players and the control of their lives turn participation in sports into a form of conscription."

Given the spate of defections by Cuban ballplayers, those who compete abroad travel with a heavy "security" detail, to deter escape. The regime also "makes sure [their] family members stay behind on the island," says Ros-Lehtinen, as de facto hostages. This obviously discourages defection. "For every defector," writes Echevarría, "there might be ten other players who have yearned to leave but have not done so because of the stigma attached to it, and because to do so would mean to abandon their country forever, not to mention their families, from whom they would be separated, probably for good."

Of course, Cuba's baseball defectors don't just abandon their families: They also expose them to harsh government reprisals. The taint of defection can even derail the careers of celebrated ballplayers still on the island. Consider the story of Livan and Orlando Hernandez. Orlando, widely known as "El Duque," was expected to be Cuba's ace pitcher for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. But when his half-brother Livan, also a standout Cuban pitcher, defected in 1995, and Cuban authorities suspected he might follow suit, El Duque lost his spot on the Olympic team and received a lifetime ban from Cuban baseball. (He himself defected a few years later; both half-brothers became major-league stars.)

Andy Morales met a similar fate. In May 1999 he hit a memorable three-run homer in the Cuban national team's exhibition game at Camden Yards. Back in Cuba, Morales boasted a stellar batting average and could plausibly claim to be one of his nation's best third basemen. But while in Baltimore he met with a sports agent and spoke about defecting. That scuttled his Olympic hopes for Sydney 2000. The Cuban government barred Morales from traveling to the Summer Games, fearing he would jump ship. After Morales tried unsuccessfully to defect and was forcibly repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard in June 2000, Cuban officials belittled his talents and effectively terminated his baseball career on the island. (He eventually made it to America, where he signed a contract with the New York Yankees.)

It's understandable that baseball fans are anxious to watch the Cuban squad in action next month. It's also understandable for them to question the U.S. embargo and regret the intersection of sports and politics. But make no mistake: The Cuban players heading to Puerto Rico are not just world-class athletes--they're tokens of a Communist regime, which is why they remain virtual prisoners even when competing in a free country.

Echevarría, one of the foremost experts on Cuban baseball, deserves the last word: "I appreciate the fans' desire to see some of the finest players in the world, but it hardly stretches the truth to say that those who want Cuba to participate are asking to be entertained by a team of slaves," he wrote in the New York Times last month. "Are people so eager for a good baseball game that we are willing to overlook 47 years of totalitarian oppression?"

Duncan Currie is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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