Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Decision that Alienates All


By LINDA ROBERTSON

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

Posted on Sun, Dec. 25, 2005

Among the most enchanting places to visit in Havana is Latin American Stadium, where you can watch the fast, flamboyant style of Cuban baseball, or Parque Central, where groups of grizzled experts gather daily to debate -- with equal flamboyance -- the news of the sport, whether it's about the local Industriales or the New York Yankees.

Football has become America's game, but in Cuba, baseball is still the national pastime. Baseball is part of Cuban culture and a key to Cuban pride.

Why would the U.S. government, which professes empathy with the oppressed Cuban people, snub its nose at them?

Once again, the U.S. government has made a clumsy, petty decision that only alienates Cubans, baffles the rest of the world and delights Fidel Castro.

This time, it has nothing to do with immigration or trade. This time our fearless leaders are telling the Cubans they can't play ball.

The U.S. Treasury Department, at the urging of Cuban-American congressmen, has denied a request by Major League Baseball to allow Cuba to send its team to the inaugural World Baseball Classic, to be played March 3-20 in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Tokyo. Cuba's bid for a license was turned down because making money in the tournament would violate the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

MLB and at least 100 members of Congress have asked the Treasury Department to reconsider. San Juan has threatened to withdraw as a host. But don't expect U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart to back down. He is trying to help organize Cuban exile pros to represent a ''free Cuba,'' even though it's against the rules to form a team without a national federation.

Diaz-Balart also tried to equate the ban to the former one against apartheid South Africa, which is quite a reach. The U.S. is more racist than Cuba is under Castro.

Mixing politics and sports is nothing new, but it rarely turns out well, as a chastened Adolph Hitler found out in 1936.

And turning athletes into political pawns always backfires. The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games caused bitterness, not reform.

The U.S. looks foolish excluding the world-renowned Cuban baseball team after allowing Cuba's soccer team to play in the Gold Cup here last summer. In 1999,
Cuba played against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards and in Havana. In 1996, Cuba competed in the Atlanta Olympics.

Why, for 43 years, has the U.S. clung to an ineffective embargo? Once again, we're giving Castro a priceless propaganda platform. He can portray his small island as
a victim of the bullying U.S.

The irony is that Castro might not have sent his team, not only because of the risk of defections but because they probably wouldn't win. Now, instead of Castro looking cowardly, he can say the U.S. is intimidated by the Big Red Machine.

In many other countries -- or U.S. cities for that matter -- Castro's image as an underdog is reinforced.

It's a painful issue here in Miami. But if emotions can be put aside for a moment, it is clear that the baseball-loving people of Cuba are again paying for the crimes of Castro, the old pitcher who has his nemesis flailing at air.

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