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O's leave Cuba with hope, no deal; Dispute over proceeds big exhibition cloud


HAVANA -- The American baseball delegation left Cuba yesterday afternoon without a firm agreement to schedule a spring exhibition series between the Baltimore Orioles and a team of Cuban all-stars, and the prospects for the potentially historic baseball exchange appear to have dimmed.

By all accounts, significant progress was made during the four days of negotiations, but the ultimate success of the venture still remains heavily clouded by the 40-year history of distrust between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

"There are important areas which are unresolved at this time but which will remain the subject of continuing discussions in the days ahead," read a portion of the joint statement released at Havana's International Press Center just before Orioles owner Peter Angelos and the American delegation returned to Baltimore.

In short, the two negotiating teams have not yet resolved the touchy issue of how to distribute the charitable proceeds from the event in a way that would satisfy both the U.S. State Department and the Cuban government.

"I believe we've made substantial progress in these discussions with the Cuban delegation," Angelos said yesterday, "which have been carried on in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect and cordiality. There are other matters remaining to be resolved on both sides and those that we need to address we will be working on in the immediate future."

Angelos continues to express confidence about the viability of the proposed home-and-home series, which would begin with a game March 28 at Havana's 55,000-seat Latin American Stadium and conclude at Camden Yards on April 3. Many of the nuts-and-bolts issues have been resolved, but the remaining political obstacles figure to make the deal difficult to complete.

How difficult became even more evident soon after the delegation's charter jet lifted off from Jose Marti International Airport. The Cuban government released a separate communique insisting that the proceeds go to hurricane victims in Central America rather than be distributed to needy Cubans through the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and the Cuban charity known as Caritas.

"Cuba will not renounce this just and noble requirement even if none of the games are played," said the government statement, which criticized the American delegation for "proposing the destination, distribution and form" of the proceeds.

Though the Cuban officials provided a warm welcome to the large American delegation and expressed enthusiasm for the mission, the negotiations clearly were handicapped by what was viewed in Cuba as a serious breach of trust by the State Department before the trip got off the ground.

Sources close to the sensitive talks indicated that both sides had agreed that the visit would be kept confidential, but the trip was announced to the American media by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright before it even had been scheduled. The situation was complicated when Albright announced that all proceeds would go to Caritas, which does not have the official sanction of the Cuban government.

It was against this backdrop that Angelos, Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson and 10 other members of the official delegation worked through the extended holiday weekend trying to chip away at a long list of issues with the leaders of the Cuban sports ministry (INDER) and Cuba's National Baseball Commission.

The goodwill baseball mission has been compared to the trip by a U.S. table tennis team that helped in the normalization of relations with China in the early 1970s, but Angelos sought to differentiate between the two events because of concern by the Cuban delegation about the linkage of the visit with the broader Cuba initiative announced by the State Department two weeks ago.

"Our initiative is a private one," Angelos said at yesterday's news conference. "The Orioles are a private organization that is not connected in any way with the U.S. government. In that way, there may be a difference between this and the pingpong games in China.

"There was more of a government effort on the part of the United States to open relations with China. The Orioles have initiated this effort privately to bring the Cuban people and our citizens together. If that leads to improvement in relations and greater contact among our people, certainly Major League Baseball, the Orioles and all associated with us and, I'm sure, millions of Americans, will be delighted."

INDER vice president Raul Villanueva echoed that sentiment.

"Our goal is a sports goal," he said. "Purely sports. In previous years we have talked about holding these games with the Orioles and some other big-league teams. We have made progress but have not reached a conclusion with the Orioles."

Angelos had hoped to come home with all the major components of an agreement firmly in place, leaving only the lesser logistical and site preparation issues to be worked out before spring.

Despite the expressions of optimism by both sides, the revenue issue is highly charged. The head of Cuba's parliament made it clear in a statement recently that the Cuban government would like to see the proceeds go to help victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Angelos still wants to direct some proceeds to Catholic Relief Services.

There may be room for a compromise, but it would require special permission from higher authorities in both governments. Angelos is expected to go to Washington later this week.

"We remain optimistic and to what the Orioles and Major League Baseball consider to be a very worthy people-to-people exchange," Angelos said.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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