By ROBERTO GONZÁLEZ ECHEVARRÍA | New York Times Op/Ed
PRETTY much everyone - Major League Baseball players, the sport’s world governing body, Democrats in Congress, sports columnists, foreign politicians and even many fans - has ridiculed the United States for refusing to allow the Cuban national team to travel to American soil to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic this spring. 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.
Consider this: the option not to play in the tournament, which has been exercised by the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui among others, is not available to Cuban players - if the government tells them to play, they must. On the other hand, the regime can suspend a player from “Team Fidel,” as the national team is often called, simply out of suspicion that he might defect. This happened to Orlando Hernández, before he managed to escape in a boat and eventually find fame with the Yankees.
In this, of course, players are no different from ordinary Cubans, who are subject to preventive arrest under a law known by the horrendous euphemism of “peligrosidad predelictiva,” which translates roughly to “dangerousness likely leading to crime.” Players are also not allowed to make critical remarks about the government to the foreign press, an act prohibited by a law known as “ley mordaza,” or the “gag law.”
During their regular season, the Cuban players are not allowed to choose a team; they must play for the squad in the district where they reside or not at all. They have no unions and no agents. And they must engage in the institutionalized hypocrisy (copied from the former Soviet Union) of being amateurs, temporarily away from their jobs. The result is that their pay is meager and that they are under total control of the state’s Orwellian sports bureaucracy.
And, of course, they cannot leave the country to play elsewhere. If they manage to escape, they cannot set foot in Cuba again for five years, and their families are often subject to harassment by government-supported mobs, called brigadas de accion rápida (“quick response brigades”), that throw stones, eggs and other debris at their houses.
The arguments for Cuba’s participation range from the puerile to the perverse. Peter Angelos, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, has accused the United States of “picking on” a little country in language worthy of the playground. Since when does the size of a country matter when it comes to its importance, or its repressiveness? Mr. Angelos also sat next to Fidel Castro when his team played an exhibition game in Havana in 1999 and promised he would refuse to sign any Cuban defectors.
Others claim that the American stance is dictated by exiles in Miami who lost property in Cuba when Fidel Castro took power in 1959. This is contemptible on two counts: it assumes that Cuban-Americans base their opposition to the dictatorship on greed rather than on personal and political ethics; and it ignores the fact that the number of exiles who lost property in Cuba nearly five decades ago is by now quite small. The Cuban exile community spans the political, social and racial gamut; it includes not a few members of the old Cuban Communist Party. All have endured untold hardships to become economically self-sufficient in America.
Besides, these Cubans are American citizens; as such, they are entitled to try to influence foreign policy in the same way any other group does. In exercising that right, they can and do influence elections, which in turn influence American policy toward Cuba - a delicious irony because the Cuban regime has of course never been legitimized by free elections.
And for those who say keeping the Cubans out of the tournament is another example of American ignorance, consider the racist aspect of Cuban sport: the squad is composed almost entirely of black Cuban men, toiling for the glory of the Maximum Leader and his macho, white oligarchy.
Every time that a foreign partner is duped into financing his crumbling economy (with the Soviet Union gone, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is paying the bills), Fidel Castro clamps down on any incipient free enterprise in Cuba, condemning his people to appalling living conditions, while he and his associates enjoy the pleasures of unrestrained power. Are people so eager for a good baseball game that we are willing to overlook 47 years of totalitarian oppression?
Roberto González Echevarría, a professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale, is the author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.”