Play ball if Havana will; Policy shift: Opening to Cuba is welcome but does not go far enough, should review trade embargo.


IF the Baltimore Orioles can play exhibition games with Cuba's national team in Havana and Orioles Park this March, the world will be, if only marginally, a better place.

The carefully hedged initiatives toward loosening relations with Cuba announced by the White House yesterday are welcome, but do not go far enough.

Especially welcome is the permission for the Baltimore Orioles to send a mission to Havana to explore the possibility of games.

Baseball could do for Cuban-American relations what Ping-Pong diplomacy did in paving the way for the Nixon administration's opening to China in the 1970s. But it is no sure thing.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos is on record favoring such a plan, in part to scout Cuban players. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is on record against baseball relations because he fears the same thing. He is an ardent baseball nationalist who has banned players suspected of intending to defect.

U.S. permission is shrouded in conditions, to satisfy Cuban-American and conservative American sensibilities. Cuba's ruler might not accept them.

The possibility of exhibition baseball games are part of a broad but modest loosening of relations with Cuba that does not require amending the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. It includes more direct air links, modest remittances of money by non-Cubans as well as family members, restoration of direct mail, and trade of foodstuffs and agricultural supplies to private enterprises.

Unfortunately, the White House did not authorize a bipartisan commission to review four decades of trade embargo. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., leads a bipartisan Senate effort to bring about such a review.

The embargo, which remains in place, has harmed the Cuban people while entrenching the Communist regime. It no longer stops many Americans from going to Cuba as tourists without their government's permission, through third countries.

The failed policy contrasts with the benefits of U.S. trade to other countries with Communist regimes, several of which (notably Russia) are no longer Communist.

Mr. Castro is right to suspect that baseball relations with the U.S. would be inherently subversive. There is only one problem with Washington's decision to allow the Orioles, under certain circumstances, to play in Havana: In a free country, the Orioles should not need to ask.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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