WASHINGTON -- The Baltimore Orioles could be playing baseball in Cuba this year as part of a new U.S. initiative to expand people-to-people contact with the Communist-ruled island, U.S. officials disclosed yesterday.
The games will be allowed only if profits go to humanitarian assistance in Cuba and not to the Fidel Castro regime, a senior U.S. official said. The Orioles are expected to send a group to Cuba as early as this week to negotiate arrangements for the exhibition games, one of which would be in Cuba and the other in Baltimore.
The new permission granted to the Orioles was one of a series of steps expected to be officially announced by the White House today that are aimed at easing the plight of Cubans while maintaining tight sanctions against the Castro government.
"We ought to be doing everything we can to help the Cuban people," a senior State Department official said.
The Clinton administration also plans to allow more people to send money to Cubans, to open direct mail service, and to permit the sale of food to independent organizations and small restaurants, and the sales of fertilizer and pesticides to private farmers and cooperatives.
The new measures follow an initiative launched after the visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II a year ago this week. That visit provided what the senior official called a "wedge" allowing increased contacts to be explored.
The Clinton administration, which has courted voters in Cuban-American strongholds in Florida, has refused to lift the economic embargo imposed by the United States after Castro assumed power in 1959.
But starting during Clinton's first term, the administration has explored ways of boosting contacts with the Cuban people that would not directly benefit the Castro government.
The effort was scuttled temporarily after Cuban forces shot down four aircraft piloted by Cuban exiles in 1996. But after Castro granted greater religious freedom at the time of the pope's visit, the Clinton administration seized the opportunity to resume the effort.
While unveiling the proposed contacts at a briefing yesterday, the Clinton administration rejected another idea that has been prominently floated by former officials and some Republican lawmakers: naming a bipartisan commission to review the United States' policy toward Cuba, including the four-decade embargo.
"There is a broad consensus, with a major disagreement on the embargo," a senior State Department official said. "The embargo is the law, and the only way that can be changed is by Congress passing another law. And I don't think that can be handled by a bipartisan commission."
Schmoke sought exchange
The Orioles baseball exchange would fulfill a long-standing ambition of the Orioles and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who suggested sending the team to Havana for an exhibition game last March after a visit to the island.
"The mayor and a number of other people have been working behind the scenes to try and carry the people-to-people contact between Baltimoreans and Cubans a step further," said Clint Coleman, a spokesman for Schmoke.
The baseball exchange would depend on acceptance of the proposal by the Cuban government and its acceptance of the U.S. conditions on the proceeds going to charity.
"If arrangements for the exhibition games are structured in a way which promotes people-to-people contacts, facilitates humanitarian assistance for the Cuban people and minimizes benefit for the Cuban government, a second license will be granted to expend funds for the holding of the exhibition games," a senior State Department official told reporters.
Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, a major contributor to the Democratic Party, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Bill Stetka, an Orioles spokesman, said: "We have nothing to report at this time. We'll most likely have an announcement tomorrow."
Baseball Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig also would have to approve the exhibitions.
"The Orioles have kept us informed on every phase of it," Selig said. "They wouldn't want to begin the process without our approval."
Kenneth F. Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, said his organization has been advising the Orioles on the exchange of baseball teams.
"We have been in discussions with the Orioles for quite a while," he said. "We're working very actively with them right now to work out some of the details."
CRS has sent about $20 million worth of assistance to Cuba, mostly food and medicine, since 1992, Hackett said. The aid is distributed through Caritas, a Cuba-based organization affiliated with CRS. Either agency could qualify as a charity recipient of the proceeds of the baseball games.
Hackett added, "We're in favor and have advocated on the record that we think it's time to rethink the embargo. These steps are really positive."
There was no immediate reaction from the Cuban government yesterday.
Cuban exiles cautious
The new U.S. measures drew a mixed response from the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban exile community and its supporters in Congress. They applauded the Clinton administration's rejection of a bipartisan commission on Cuba, but opposed any measures that might benefit the Castro regime, even if indirectly.
Jose Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), cautiously welcomed the plan for exhibition games. He said Castro should "not be allowed to dictate what teams are allowed to go down." He particularly opposed giving Castro the right to veto games with teams that include Cuban exiles.
So far, the Orioles are the only team mentioned by the Clinton administration as being eligible to explore exhibition games.
Cardenas also opposed easing restrictions on the sale of food.
The Clinton administration proposes that some of the food could go to the small private restaurants that have sprung up in Cuba in recent years, thus encouraging private enterprise. But Cardenas said this would end up bolstering the tourism industry and thus would indirectly benefit the Castro regime.
However, he said CANF "has always supported efforts to reach out and assist the Cuban people, so long as they didn't result in a benefit to the Castro regime."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spent part of yesterday afternoon telephoning lawmakers to tell them of the new initiative.
'Please review this'
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, told the Associated Press that he opposes any sale or financing of agricultural products to Cuba, calling it illegal.
"If you proceed by executive order, that would violate the law," Diaz-Balart said he told Albright. "Please review this before proceeding."
Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, opposed easing restrictions on the flow of money to Cuba.
"This policy change will substantially increase the cash flow to the regime and even permit sending cash to Fidel Castro himself," he said.
The Clinton administration says that senior Cuban government or Communist Party officials would not be eligible to receive remittances.
Now, only family members living in the United States can send money to needy Cubans. Under the new policy, anyone in the United States could send money. The limit of $1,200 annually would remain.
Sun staff writers Peter Schmuck and John Rivera contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/05/99