The Tampa Bay Rays and a host of dignitaries from Major League Baseball were part of the thawing of tensions between the United States and Cuba on Tuesday. President Obama became the first American President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge when he visited the island in an attempt to build relations between to two nations. Baseball provides some distraction from the real events taking place. The embargo on Cuba is receding and for the first time under either Fidel or Raul Castro’s rule, Cuba is slowly opening itself to the United States and the rest of the world. Sports, especially baseball, have played an integral part in the process and the game between the Rays and the Cuban National team was as much ceremonial as it was competition.
It was a packed house in Cuba to watch the Cuban National Team face the Tampa Bay Rays. (Yamil Lage/ AFP/ Getty Images)
Sports can act as a bridge when traditional diplomacy runs into a wall. The past is littered with examples of how sports have overcome seemingly impassable obstacles in domestic and international relations. The thawing of the relationship between the United States and Cuba is just the latest chapter. The embargo on Cuba has meant increased isolation for Cubans, who were left to live their lives under a repressive regime that concerns itself with control over everything else. This repression has led thousands of Cubans, if not more, to risk their lives to leave the island through any means possible. As Dan Le Batard, the son of Cuban exiles, of the Miami Herald wrote,
“The ocean between our countries is filled with the Cuban bodies that tell the story, lives literally thrown to the wind in desperation, hoping to reach America’s possibility-soaked shores on boats made of old tires and wood and poverty’s debris.”
The pain and anger for Cubans, both in and out of Cuba, is real. Families have been indefinitely separated through no fault of their own. Countless lives have been lost when boats and rafts, ill suited for crossing the Straits of Florida, sink or capsize. Their human cargo like flotsam in the water floating miles away from land. Cubans have gone to desperate lengths to escape their homeland. Le Batard makes it crystal clear that the pain Cubans who have made it out is not self inflicted. They are not immigrants, rather they are exiles. The difference between willingly leaving your home and being forced to leave. Cubans want to reunite with their families, but the Castro regime continues to prevent this.
Hope remains, no matter how long it takes, that some day all Cubans can be reunited. The politics of Cuba and between Cuba and the United States begin at the foul lines during the Rays game. The game on the field is only a piece of the larger diplomatic puzzle. Normalizing relations between the two countries does not bring back the lives lost in the Straits of Florida, nor do they replace the years of separation between families. Yasiel Puig, Orlando and Livan Hernandez, and numerous other prospective baseball players endured harrowing trips in pursuit of freedom using human smugglers. Jose Abreu took a boat with other members of his family to the Dominican Republic. Aroldis Chapman defected while in the Netherlands for a baseball tournament. Every story of defection is about starting a new life, but it is also about the life the players leave behind.
Cubans have used everything they can to escape to freedom. (AP Photo/ Hans Deryk)
Several Cuban players were reunited with their families this week. Jose Abreu was reunited with his five year old son this week after a three year separation. Do you think that weighs on his mind more than striking out? Imagine having to leave your family when your child is two years old and not seeing them again until they are five. What about leaving on a boat in the middle of the night and not knowing if you will ever see your parents again? The dangers are real for Cubans fleeing oppression both for personal safety, but also losing part of who you are.
There is no easy, plausible solution to the the situation. Cuban exiles want the Castros out of power and the Castros want to remain in power. The oppression in Cuba is real. If it was not, it is doubtful that so many would risk their lives to find freedom. The American presidential campaign season has brought xenophobia to the dinner table. However, at our core, I believe, America remains the refuge for the oppressed. The Cuban Adjustment Act, or Wet Feet, Dry Feet Policy, remains in place only for Cubans. The Cuban embargo is a remnant of the Cold War, but the United States remains a safe haven for those who seek peace and justice. President Obama is using Major League Baseball in an attempt to invite Cuba to play nice in other political dealings.. Baseball is a tool that can be used given the passion for the sport in both nations. While this excursion in Havana may not bring down the Castro regime and create a free and open Cuba, at least the United States has changed its stance and is probing for an opening to help end the suffering of all Cubans.
How long will Cuban baseball players have to risk it all to reach freedom to play the game they love? (Lisa Shires, Your Shot, National Geographic)
Cuba, its politics, and its love of baseball are alive and well in south Florida. The Miami Marlins may not set records with their attendance, the good ones at least, but there is a reason Marlins Park is situated in the middle of Little Havana. Ownership hopes to draw more fans, especially Cuban fans. The stadium rises high above the working class homes that surround it. The big apartment buildings, shops, and restaurants have not followed the team just yet. The neighborhood is still its own. Last September during a trip to Miami and the Florida Keys, my girlfriend and I dutifully stopped by just to see Marlins Park. The Marlins were out of town, so there was only so much we could see.
On the advice of one of the men working inside the team gift shop we went to lunch at Morro Castle. It is a non-descript building with bars on the windows of the dining room instead of glass. The open air cafe sits about a mile down the street from the stadium. Everything inside is in Spanish, but distinctly Cuban. Not reading or understanding Spanish, I ordered through pointing and hand gestures. The food was as amazing as you would hope. The authentic feel of being the visitor to not only Morro Castle, but also Little Havana, transported us the roughly 100 miles south to Cuba.
Little Havana feels and tastes like Cuba, but the exiles living there know they are not home. (The Winning Run)
No matter how much the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami feels like Cuba, it is not Cuba. The neighborhood is full of exiles, not immigrants. People who want to go home, who want to be reunited with family and friends, people who want the Castro regime to live only in the history books. The politics of Cuba exists in Little Havana and throughout south Florida. Jose Fernandez is a fan favorite, he is a phenom on the mound, and a Cuban exile like so many in Little Havana. Fidel and Raul Castro, and their regime, are the devil incarnate for these Cuban exiles. Understandably, they do not have time or sympathy for anyone who disagrees with the experiences they have personally lived through. Ozzie Guillen’s tenure as the Marlins Manager was not destined to last long when in 2012 he spoke of his respect for Fidel Castro. Regardless of the point that Guillen, a Venezuelan, was trying to make, invoking Castro in a positive light meant he was a supporter in the eyes of the Cuban exiles. Guillen was suspended five games for his comments by the Marlins and was fired at the end of the 2012 season. A solid manager, but his comments on his respect for Fidel Castro has meant he has talked his way out of American baseball. No Major League team has been willing to hire him with this sort of baggage, among other reasons. The Cuban community, especially in south Florida, does not waver in its collective hatred for the Castros nor their desire for the regime to become a painful memory of the past.
Baseball may be the tool necessary to create better relations between the United States and Cuba. The dialogue between President Obama and Raul Castro could lead to a breakthrough decades in the making. Baseball diplomacy could also fail to change anything in Cuba, and simply provide a brief glimpse into life of the island. Only time will tell if the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team helped to change policies designed to isolate the communist regime. Baseball, and all sports, allow political battles to be fought on the athletic field instead of the battlefield. The passion for baseball remains strong in both countries. The personal toll on the Cuban community both on the island and in exile continues to mount as more Cubans are dying trying to reach freedom and families continue to be separated from one another due to politics. Sports can work to unite people, let’s hope that baseball can start the path towards reunifying the Cuban people and ending the suffering of so many.