U.S. seeks to deny Cubas right to play baseball

The U.S. government is trying to deny the Cuban national baseball team the right to play in the inaugural World Baseball Classic that is scheduled for March 3-20, 2006. Once again the U.S. embargo is closing doors to the Cuban people, and this time in the name of baseball. Perhaps the real reason for the denial is that the U.S. government is intimidated by the powerhouse reputation of the Cuban team.

The U.S. Treasury Department told Major League Baseball of its decision on Dec. 14, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control confirmed the announcement. The move came after Cuban American members of Congress urged the Treasury to veto the license application and asked MLB to drop the Cuba team from the tournament. Participating teams are expected to gain some financial benefit, rightfully so, during the series. Therefore the Cuban team is required to apply for a license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Treasury’s decision came as the Bush regime continues to tighten trade and travel sanctions on Havana over the past year in a declared bid to deny resources to the people of Cuba. In recent months, several Cuban music groups, academics and scientists have been denied U.S. visas.

Earlier this month, Cuban President Fidel Castro told the Panamanian press that he looked forward to the baseball games. “We will participate and demonstrate that we know what to do in baseball,” he told reporters.

The World Baseball Classic is the sport’s first World Cup-style tournament, consisting of an 18-day match up. It was originally organized to include 16 teams of mostly professional players from North and Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa. Coordinated jointly by the commissioner’s office and the players’ union, the games are set to take place in Tokyo, Puerto Rico, Florida, Arizona and California.

“We are very disappointed with the government’s decision to deny the participation of a team from Cuba in the World Baseball Classic,” said Paul Archey, senior vice president of Major League Baseball International, and Gene Orza, chief operating officer of the major league’s Baseball Players Association. “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.”

Puerto Rico is also making an effort to reverse the decision. Fernando Bonilla, Puerto Rico’s secretary of state, told the Associated Press, “We are going to directly participate in helping so the (Cuban) delegation can come to the games in Puerto Rico.”

In Havana, Cubans on the street expressed disappointment and frustration with the unsportsmanlike behavior of the U.S. government.

“Enough already!” declared Antonio Mayeta, brother of a baseball player in Cuba. “Its unbelievable. This is about sports, not politics. In Cuba, baseball is our culture. Everyone was so anxious to see these games.”

“Everyone from Fidel to little boys are born with a bat in their hands,” explained Victor Renglon to a reporter, while sitting on a park bench in Havana.

Cuban defectors to the U.S., such as Orlando Hernandez, Livan Hernandez and starting pitcher Jose Contreras of the World Series champions, the Chicago White Sox, would most likely not be included in the Cuban national team.

Molly Millerwise, spokeswoman of the Treasury Department, told The Associated Press, “It is our policy that we do not confirm, deny or discuss licenses. Generally speaking, the Cuba embargo prohibits entering into contracts in which Cuba or Cuban nationals have an interests.”

On the other hand, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) has begun circulating letters to be sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary John Snow, asking that Cuba be allowed to play.

“Lets leave the politics out of this,” Serrano said in a statement. “The World Baseball Classic should not be tainted by our grudge against Cuba’s government. Cuba produces some of the finest talent in the world and they deserve to participate.”

In a news conference last week in Dallas, the BPA’s Orza was optimistic that the Cubans will play in the tournament. “I do not think that is a serious impediment,” he said, adding that he was “very, very confident that the Cubans will play.”

Six and half years ago, Peter Angelos, a former city councilman and long time supporter of the Democratic Party, helped organize Cuba’s national baseball team visit the U.S. They played the Baltimore Orioles, the team Angelos owns, in an exhibition game, after nearly investing three years in coordinating one game during the Clinton years.

Angelos said he was not sure if baseball officials would be able to persuade the Bush administration to alter its decision. “This is a directive from those people who are running the country now,” he said. “Part of their pitch to the American people is the continued isolation of people in Cuba. I think its wrong. I think its stupid. I think what’s worse is that, once again, the U.S., this huge colossus, the strongest country in the world, is picking on this tiny, little country of 11 million. The main thing is celebrating and enjoying the game of baseball and bringing these nations together. Why should this cause a disturbance? It’s unnecessary.”

In other news, according to an International Olympic Committee, bids to host future Olympic Games in the U.S. will be damaged by this move to prevent Cuba from playing in the inaugural competition.

“It’s for baseball to decide, but if they don’t make a stand on something like that, then they will have big problems down the road,” said Dick Pound, and IOC member from Canada. “If not reversed, it would completely scupper” any bid by the United States to stage a summer or winter Olympic Games, he said.