Fifteen years after Orioles' visit to Cuba, baseball diplomacy still hits home

When @SchmuckStop visited Cuba in 1999, he saw a baseball-mad country with very real problems.

It's one thing to view Cuba in geopolitical terms, which has become a very popular pastime since President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he had begun the process of normalizing relations with the tiny island nation that once played such a large role in the Cold War.

It's quite another to watch barefoot children playing baseball on a dirt field with homemade bats and balls.

That's one of the enduring memories of the two trips I made to Havana in 1999 — the first as part of the delegation led by Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos to set up a historic home-and-home series between the Orioles and a team of Cuban all-stars, and the second for the first half of that series at Estadio Latinoamericano.

The attempt at baseball diplomacy, compared at the time to the U.S. table tennis team's historic visit to communist China in 1971, was billed simply as a goodwill gesture, but it was laden with political significance and hotly debated from the halls of Congress to the streets of Little Havana in Miami.

For me, at least, it turned out to be quite an enlightening experience, because it was impossible to view the country from the inside the way most Americans had come to view the onetime Soviet proxy just 90 miles off Florida's southernmost coast.

The trip with the State Department-approved Major League Baseball delegation in January 1999 was not supposed to include any U.S. media, but Angelos felt there needed to be someone to chronicle the visit, and included me in the traveling party as a team official.

The Cuban delegation was not fooled, of course, and my role in the negotiations soon was reduced to a daily press briefing. The rest of the time was spent touring Havana with Tom Garofalo of Catholic Relief Services as my tour guide and interpreter.

We visited the beautiful Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception and sat at the bars once frequented by Ernest Hemingway. We ducked into underground jazz clubs and went to a ballgame between Havana's immensely popular Industriales and rival Santiago de Cuba.

We also handed out Orioles caps to wide-eyed children, who treated something our kids had taken for granted as if they were spun from gold.

It was a very memorable trip, but the fact that Cuba was, and still is, ruled by the iron hand of the Castro regime was always apparent, from the gray-uniformed street monitors to the two gentlemen who turned up at several of those same locations, chain-smoking cigarettes and trying not very hard to look inconspicuous.

There came a point during an evening meal when I asked a member of the Cuban delegation seated next to me whether it was really necessary to have us followed.

"Oh, they are not following you, señor," he replied. "They are protecting you."

Funny, but the only time we ever felt unsafe was when we noticed our secret escort. Our reception on the streets and in the public markets was warm and friendly. The Cubans we interacted with spoke glowingly about America and showered us with questions about the rumored visit by the Orioles — or, as they pronounced the word, "Ori-OH-lez."

There were times, however, when they were not comfortable with the possibility of being seen in the company of American tourists. They clearly had the sense, as I did, that Big Brother was watching. It was the same feeling I got during my only trip to Russia, even though that visit was well after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Evidence of the decades-long U.S. embargo was everywhere. Much of Havana had a gray-brown Soviet look to it, but not because of any Russian architectural influence. The streets, except in scenic Old Havana, were devoid of color because of the difficulty and great expense of importing something as common as house paint.

Old Havana was a revelation, though. It was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site in 1982, and was restored beautifully by the UN agency that promotes education and historical preservation.

What I brought home from the first trip — along with a couple boxes of cigars — was the sense that the U.S. embargo had served only to tighten President Fidel Castro's grip on power and needed to be reconsidered if there ever was to be hope of improved relations between the nations and a brighter future for the Cuban people.

That sense has gotten only stronger over the past 15 years, while the possibility of real progress toward a more democratic Cuba has been held hostage by a partisan standoff over key electoral votes in Florida.

Maybe Obama's decision to open an embassy in Havana and loosen some economic restrictions won't make a bit of difference, but he is definitely right about one thing: Clinging stubbornly to a failed policy for more than a half-century is no way to run a foreign policy.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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