BY MEGHAN CLYNE | Staff Reporter of the New York Sun
The Treasury Department has denied a team from Fidel Castro’s Cuba the permission it needs to play in Major League Baseball’s first World Baseball Classic, league officials and members of Congress said yesterday. The move will likely preclude Cuba’s participation in the upcoming international tournament.
The denial comes days after a push by Cuban-American members of Congress, led by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican of Florida, to have Cuba represented by a team of free Cubans, and to have the Bush administration reject Major League Baseball’s requests to funnel money to the Castro dictatorship.
In a statement issued yesterday, the senior vice president for Major League Baseball International, Paul Archey, and the chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Gene Orza, said: “We are very disappointed with the government’s decision to deny the participation of a team from Cuba in the World Baseball Classic. We will continue to work within appropriate channels in an attempt to address the government’s concerns, and will not announce a replacement unless and until that effort fails.” The players association, the ballplayers’ labor union, is also a sponsor of the World Baseball Classic.
The Treasury Department yesterday said it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the licenses requested by the league, citing department policy.
As The New York Sun reported Monday, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, Richard Levin, had said some money from the World Baseball Classic would be distributed to the participating national baseball federations, including Cuba’s. Under the terms of America’s embargo against the Castro regime, enforced by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, entities under American jurisdiction are prohibited from sending money to Cuban interests.
According to one league official, the Treasury Department, in its communications with the league, had cited concern over the money transfers as the reason for the licenses’ being denied.
The Bush administration’s rejection of the license requests also was confirmed by two Cuban-American members of Congress, Mr. Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Republican of Florida. Mr. Diaz-Balart wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Snow late last week asking that he prohibit Cuba’s participation in the tournament, saying the transfer of any revenue from the World Baseball Classic would be a “direct violation” of America’s Cuba policy, and “would allow a State Sponsor of Terrorism to use U.S. currency to finance its machinery of oppression.” Cuba is one of six State Department-identified state sponsors of terrorism.
Mr. Diaz-Balart also wrote a letter late last week to the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Allan “Bud” Selig, asking that the league allow free Cuban-Americans, instead of the state-controlled Federacion Cubana de Beisbol, to represent the island. Mr. Diaz-Balart had identified 22 free players in the major leagues, and 62 minor league players, who would be qualified to represent Cuba under the tournament’s rules.
A league official told The New York Sun yesterday that if efforts to change the administration’s position prove fruitless, it is unlikely that Cuba will be represented by a team of free Cubans. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the official, who asked not to be named, said.
The official said the League was trying to work around the money-transfer and other issues preventing Cuba’s participation, saying: “We will look at every possible way we could somehow resolve this.” But, he added, “If we cannot get the Cuban national team to play, we will probably substitute another country.” The official said that a few candidate countries have been identified but could not be named. The replacement team, he said, will probably come from another Latin American country.
Replacing the Castro-fielded team with free Cubans, as the members of Congress had suggested, would violate the terms of the tournament, the official said. The World Baseball Classic is sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation, which organizes international competitions like Olympic baseball. Earlier this week, Mr. Levin told the Sun that the World Baseball Classic had invited 16 national federations from the 110-member federation that it felt were “representative” and could field “competitive” teams.
The teams participating in the World Baseball Classic, the anonymous official said, would have to be fielded by member national federations, and could not be selected by Major League Baseball. “We can’t in an ad hoc way put in a team that’s not representative of the national federation,” the official said.
While Mr. Diaz-Balart welcomed the Treasury Department’s decision not to grant an exception to the embargo to Major League Baseball, the congressman expressed disappointment that the league would rather allow another country to take Cuba’s place than to allow the nation to be represented by a team not controlled by Havana’s strongman.
“It would be very unfortunate if MLB says only a dictatorship can represent Cuba in the tournament,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said in an e-mail to the Sun. “I don’t know why MLB seems so determined to create ill will in a people and country like Cuba that has such a deep love of baseball.”
Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, too, intensified calls for the league to allow Cuba to be represented by a free team following the Treasury Department’s decision. “It would be a shame not to allow Cuban-born baseball players to represent their home country,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen wrote in an e-mail. “To substitute another country isn’t the right thing to do. Free Cubans can represent their native land.”
Requests for comment from the Cuban Mission to the United Nations went unreturned. Officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington could not be reached for comment.
The World Baseball Classic is an 18-day, four-round tournament scheduled for March 3-20. Cuba, if it is allowed to play, or a team that replaces it, will compete against 15 other teams from North America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Latin America, at venues in Japan, Puerto Rico, Arizona, and California.