Recently returned from Havana, Wayne Smith, a visiting professor in the Political Science Department and director of the Cuba Exchange Program, reflects on what he saw on the baseball field and takes a look at the current and future state of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Havana, May 1986. You were there with the Hopkins Blue Jays baseball team as they played three games against Cuban competition. What was that like?
It was really heartwarming because the reception of the Cuban crowd was just so enthusiastic. They applauded the American players when they made good plays and applauded their own as well. "The Star Spangled Banner" was played. Everyone stood respectfully at attention.
What do you remember as a particularly poignant or significant moment during that weeklong trip?
I think the most heartwarming memory of those three games was the meeting after the last game. The minister of education had a small reception--basically just for the two teams and the coaches and a few of us who had accompanied the team. But to see the Cuban and American players get together, and once the ice was broken, become very warm friends in a period of half an hour--it was good to see.
Did that trip do anything--good or bad--for U.S.-Cuba relations?
No, I don't think the trip had that objective. It was a baseball game, or a series of baseball games. And I don't think the [recent] game between the Orioles and the Cuban national team will have any particular effect, in terms of political relations, on the official relations between the two countries. But it's good to see the people-to-people contact--American citizens and Cuban citizens engaging with one another in a sports event and competition. That in itself was worthwhile.
Havana, March 1999. You were there again, this time watching the Baltimore Orioles play a Cuban all-star team. What was this game like?
What was the atmosphere like? The game was absolutely splendid. The day was beautiful. The stadium was filled with people. So you had a capacity crowd--and a very enthusiastic crowd--drums and bells. The two teams met at home plate with the flags of both countries. The national anthems of both countries were played. Castro greeted both teams and stood respectfully while "The Star Spangled Banner" was played, and then the game began. It couldn't have been scripted better. It was a very close, very hard-fought game, with some beautiful pitching on both sides and some good strategy. It went into extra innings, 11 innings, and the Orioles won by one run, so the Cubans, although perhaps somewhat disappointed, could be proud of their team and confirmed in their belief that Cuban baseball is among the best in the world and that Cuban baseball, indeed, is on the same level with the major leagues in the United States.
How significant is it that Fidel Castro allowed this game to be played?
It's perhaps more significant that the U.S. government allowed it to be played. I expected the objection to come from the U.S., not from the Cubans. That's usually the way it is. Although at the official level relations are as poor as they've been in years, and quite tense, I think both sides had made the decision that the baseball game would be kept apart. And I don't think that either side believes that the baseball game will necessarily contribute to any improvement in relations. But it was something good in itself.
Could this trip have any impact on relations between the countries?
No, I don't think this game will lead to any discernible improvement in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. I see no disposition on the part of the Clinton administration to have better relations with Cuba. And Cuba is reacting very strongly and negatively to the president's statement of Jan. 5 in which he said he would not appoint a bipartisan commission to review our policy toward Cuba [and that] we will increase funds to independent organizations in Cuba to, in effect, help them in their struggle against the existing system. Well, to the Cuban government, that reads like a call for subversion--that the United States is going to fund an internal opposition. They're reacting very angrily to that.
After so many years without a major league game being played in Cuba, how would you say the average fan there reacted to seeing the Orioles play?
Oh, they were tremendously enthusiastic. They were impressed by the power hitting of the Orioles, and they cheered some of the Oriole batters who were knocking balls over the fence during batting practice before the game. The Cuban fans are really among the best, and the most sophisticated, in the world. They really do understand the fine points of baseball. So it was a tremendous treat to them to have a major league team in Cuba.
The fans that you talked to, did they know who the Orioles were?
Oh, of course. Cubans know every major league team in the United States. They know who the Orioles are, the Yankees, the Dodgers and everyone else.
There has already been talk of more major league games in Cuba--perhaps the Orioles, perhaps the Anaheim Angels, who are reported to have asked for permission to play there next year. Do you see these games becoming an annual happening?
I'd like to see a couple of games a year played down there--and up here. I see no reason that that can't take place. If we've allowed the Orioles to go down and this was successful and really didn't cause any problems to the two governments, one ought to allow others to go down as well.
What could happen if, during the Cuban team's trip to Baltimore, one or more of the Cuban players attempts to, or manages to, defect to this country, supposedly for the purpose of making a lot of money as a major league player?
The Cubans must certainly be aware of that risk. And if they're willing to have a team come up, they're prepared to run the risk. It seems to me the Cubans would be well served to allow their players [to play here]. The Cubans are ending their season now, just as the American season begins. Why couldn't they work something out so their players--those who could make it in the majors up here--could play in both places? And they could make a lot of money up here. The Cuban government could tax them for part of that, and everyone would come out ahead.
Any final thoughts?
I think it's important to have these people-to-people contacts. I know that some of the Cuban exiles and people who are on the [political] right in the United States complained that this game would somehow help Fidel Castro and [argued] that we shouldn't have a baseball game in Cuba so long as Cuba holds political prisoners and so forth. I can tell you that all of the Cubans I talked to in January and when I went down for the game in March--human rights activists, religious leaders, people in the street, cab drivers and government officials--everyone agreed they wanted the Orioles to come. The Cuban people wanted the baseball game, and they want more baseball games. We used to have a policy of keeping separate politics and sports--that we could engage in competition in the sports arena with the citizens even of countries with which we had serious disagreements--and I think we never should have departed from that policy. I think we certainly should return to it with respect to Cuba, and we should have many more baseball games and all other kinds of sports competitions, and not simply at the major league level. I think it would be a great thing to have Little League teams go down there and play.