Cuban Politics: Baseball and Fidel Castro Dr. Adogamhe
Politics of Development
“It is a political art to keep the people distracted and lethargic, forcing their eyes to look at new and varied things, so that being busy there is no time to look at themselves and their misery, and thus not rebelling against the case or source of their distress.” -- José Martí, Cuban Statesmen
The sport of baseball has a long and storied tradition in Cuba, flourishing on the island long before Fidel Castro. And, since the beginning of Castro’s Socialist regime – especially in recent years – he has used the sport to government’s advantage.
Cuba, historically, has a rich baseball heritage, at times surpassing that of the United States. The sport of baseball is not new in Cuba, in fact organized leagues there pre-date American professional leagues by a matter of 2-3 years. Baseball was introduced in Cuba in 1866, arriving at the same time as a sugar shipment from the United States. Sailors aboard the vessel – later rumored to have been using the game’s introduction simply as a means to sell equipment to the Cubans – built a baseball diamond and taught the game to the locals. The game spread across the island and became immediately political, as many pre-1900 revolutionaries and their supporters used the sport as a means to raise funds in the fight against Spain. In fact, for a time, the Spanish banned the sport and imprisoned several players as a means to slow down the revolution. With the end of the Spanish-American War, baseball regained national prominence and became a popular jaunt for teams of professional American “barnstormers” to play against Cubans and Negro Leaguers not allowed to compete against them in America. In fact, Jackie Robinson, infamous for breaking the color barrier in the American major leagues, honed his craft in Cuba (as well as Canada) before gaining prominence in the U.S. In the time after Robinson and before Fidel Castro, many Cubans of all shades played in the major leagues here in America.
Since Castro’s takeover of the government, the sport has again become politically charged, and its players have become pawns in a larger, off-field game. Modest funds for the overthrow actually came from a famed Cuban baseballer, Martin Dihigo, a compatriot of Che Gueverra. Within the very first days of Castro’s rules, baseball was in national headlines, as he pledged that the government would underwrite the debts of a fledgling Havana Sugar Kings team. In the time since, Castro’s focus hasn’t left this particular area. As stated on www.LeftWatch.com, in response to supposed goodwill created between the American and Cuban governments after a series of baseball contests between the two nations,
“Castro must love it – the Cuban government has long used its power to economically punish dissidents. Amnesty International and other human rights agencies have documented a pattern of the Cuban government using its power to make sure people who speak out against government policies get fired from their jobs.”
Two prominent examples of this Cuban “policy” are baseball players Lazaro Valle and Pedro Jova, both of whom had their careers ruined by the government for seemingly minuscule, if not completely nonexistent, reasons. Valle, a powerful right-handed pitcher for the national team, was banned from play and therefore pay, simply because a close friend of his (another pitcher, Rene Arocha) defected to the United States. Valle chose to remain in Cuba, without work in his rarefied profession, to keep his family intact. Jova, the manager of Cuba’s national team was banned after a suspected phone call across the border with a defector. As a result his son, fearing the same fate, jumped on a raft and left for Florida. A more recent, and famous, case is that of current New York Yankee Orlando Hernandez, who was banned from the sport immediately upon his younger brother’s defection to the U.S. The elder Hernandez, previously not planning a defection, subsequently left Cuba and signed a multi-million dollar contract.
While the island country struggles to maintain itself economically, Castro’s government takes further advantage of its talented athletes. First and foremost, the sport of baseball in today’s Cuba is free. There is no fee to attend a game. Certainly, money does change hands when concessions and foods are purchased within the stadiums, but the ticket price remains at $0, as compared to escalating prices in the U.S. where seat prices range from $20 into the triple figures. Of course, with this luxury for the nation’s citizens comes a drawback for the actual ballplayers. They simply are not paid for their work, and remain amateurs. Now, that is not to say that the players do not, in fact, ever receive wages. Most hold regular citizen jobs at regular citizen wages, although the highest echelon remains in paid training year round. Now, that may be all fine and good – the athletes in Cuba are underpaid, okay, but the people of the island get to enjoy their baseball for free, an indulgence that perhaps may not be otherwise afforded given the state of the economy. But the catch is this – Castro sells his top-of-the-line players to other countries (most notably Japan, but also Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, and Italy) and proceeds to garnish a hefty 80% of their foreign wages. Most of these players, especially the ones that end up in Japan, end up with a significant amount of money in their pockets as a result of this, but it remains a far cry from what most could make on open markets in other countries, especially when one considers that a major reason his players have not already defected is because of either national pride, or a strong sense of family. Castro and his government don’t blink an eye before taking away these privileges from the athletes, nothing to say for making a hefty profit in the process.
In lieu of this treatment, defection has become a popular, if not controversial means of escape for Cuban baseball players. This specific controversy, like many others involving Cuba, directly involves the United States, and more specifically, the U.S. laws regarding Cuban defection. The letter of the law states that said refugees are only allowed asylum in this country once physically setting foot upon our soil. Not surprisingly, though, it always isn’t that simple. The United States has been known to give INS hearings to Cuban ballplayers who have not made it all 90 miles from Cuba to the Florida Keys. These interviews, like the one recently granted to banned Cuban player Andy Morales, are certainly stricter than otherwise – Morales was sent back to Cuba because INS officials regarded his case of one of economic rather than political asylum – but at the same time, some 100 other Cuban refugees, refugees who likely had better political cases against Castro, were left without interview in a detention center in the Bahamas, where they had landed days or months before the arrival of Morales. These people simply seek freedom, whereas Morales seeks both to play the sport he loves and to get paid doing so. This, however, was not the end of his personal story. Months later, Morales attempted – this time, successfully – to defect to the United States and shortly thereafter signed a lucrative contract with the New York Yankees. Another successful Cuban defector, Rigoberta Betancourt Herrera, took advantage of the national team’s game in Baltimore and defected successfully, leaving behind his family and homeland for a chance to begin anew. His pointed words about the state of affairs in Cuba speak for himself and countless others, in and out of his profession:
“In Cuba the situation is precarious. Life is difficult -- getting transportation, housing, and even medication… Since the time I arrived (in America) I’ve been received with love and appreciation.”
Herrera’s defection was not the only controversial aspect of the Cuban team’s venture to the United States, in much the same way that an American baseball team’s trip to Cuba was filled with controversy and politicking. The home and home series, taking place in Baltimore and Havana, was seen by many as a sort of “baseball diplomacy” between the two governments, similar to the “ping-pong diplomacy” that helped bring barriers down with the Chinese in the 1970’s. However, for the American players to be allowed to play in Cuba, allowances had to be made – it would, after all, be in violation of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In addition to allowing the game to be played, President Clinton widened mail delivery and wire transfer privileges to Cuba, but also broadened the U.S. financial support of Radio Marti, an anti-Castro propaganda radio station. While the Clinton administration spun these new policies as a loosening of the embargo, they were not as widely acclaimed in Cuba. All the allowances made were simply seen as attempts to cover up the true use – the support of dissidents in Cuba. The actual games themselves were not without incident either. In Cuba, any potential disturbing events were minimalized, as Castro filled the stadium with invitation-only Socialist supporters, but that did not keep protesters – primarily Cuban immigrants in Miami – from voicing their opinions. Their opinion on the baseball games was hard and fast – they were purely political in nature, they believed that Castro allowed the games as a means to further his reputation among his Cuban supporters, and to curry economic favor with the United States. The protesters didn’t stop there, either. They took aim at the U.S. government, claiming that any interaction at such a magnitude (especially the changing of the U.S. embargo) showed a lack of respect for the well-known violations of human rights in Cuba. In Baltimore, during the second game, the protesters continued with these points, with one person going so far as to leap a stadium fence and run across the baseball diamond with an anti-Castro sign. But the games went on, and were a success. Several major leagues teams have contacted both governments in hopes of conducting more games in the future, both here and in Cuba. It is believed that Castro, in fear of losing more talent to defection, may not allow any further games. At the same time, the heat taken by the Clinton administration for allowing the Baltimore Orioles to travel to Cuba will certainly factor in any action taken by the Bush administration or any future administration in regards to this delicate issue.
Reading between the lines of the aforementioned facts and incidents, one can easily see a parallel between the Cuban government’s involvement in the daily lives of it’s citizens and it’s involvement in the sport of baseball. The major argument then becomes: what effect does baseball have on Cuba as an underdeveloped Socialist country? In class, we have spent many periods discussing the three important types of development necessary to countries like Cuba – political development, social development, and economic development. Many may ask what cripples the Cuban development more, Castro’s strong-arm regime and its paranoid sort of Socialism, or the decades-old U.S. embargo against said regime. To me, it seems that since it is in place solely because of Castro and his policies, the embargo cannot be blamed in the slightest for the woes of Cuba. So, then, the question stated above must be interpreted a bit deeper. Does Castro use the sport of baseball for his own gain, or for the advancement of his country in terms of upward development? Through the above paragraphs and evidence contained therein, it’s painfully obvious that the sport – one that is hugely profitable in America, Canada, Japan, and elsewhere, is used as a puppet by Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He bans players, leading to defections and a direct lowering of the workforce, as many take entire families with them. While the sport is free to the public, an obvious social nicety, it in no way makes up for the treatment of Cubans, be them dissidents or otherwise. The players that stay in Cuba, his own followers, are sold to other countries with the profits heading directly to the government. This money certainly could be construed as economic development if it were used to fund a welfare system, or homeless shelters, or work programs. Instead, the funds are directly appropriated to sports-related purposes, as Castro’s pride for his baseball teams seems to override his care for the average, or under-average, Cuban citizen. As it turns out, the sport of baseball does make a difference in the development of Cuba as a Third World nation. But, in funding Castro directly, and adding to his already prominent international political stature, the difference that the sport makes is a negative one.
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