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Politics part of game; Baseball: A simple, well-intentioned idea for an Orioles game in Cuba cannot avoid cultural, economic -- and political -- divides.


HAVANA -- During a visit to Cuba's Latin American Stadium last weekend, members of the baseball delegation from Baltimore thought it would be a gesture of goodwill to distribute Orioles caps to some of the children watching the ballgame between Havana's Industriales and a visiting team from Villa Clara.

The Orioles, after all, were proposing to visit the stadium in March, and the rumors of a game between a major-league team and a team of Cuban all-stars had generated substantial excitement in the capital of this baseball-crazed island nation.

The cap giveaway seemed like a good idea at the time, but it quickly created a small mob scene, as adults and children alike converged on the delegation in the hope of acquiring one of the prized souvenirs.

The incident did not cause a major security problem or prompt any bad feelings, but it served as a timely metaphor for the complex task that Orioles owner Peter Angelos undertook when he decided to pursue the goodwill baseball mission to Cuba.

To the Americans, the caps were just caps. The average American kid has a closet full of them. In Cuba, where the best seat at Latin American Stadium costs the equivalent of 10 cents (U.S.), a new American baseball cap is a small treasure that might be worn proudly as a symbol of Cuba's unconditional love of the sport or bartered at a public market for something of more practical value.

A top-quality Orioles cap, the kind that is sized rather than adjustable, can cost as much as $25 in Baltimore, an amount that would take the average Cuban worker more than a month to earn.

The four-day visit by the U.S. baseball contingent provided a series of similar revelations, each of them illustrating the wide economic, cultural and political gulf that separates the United States and Cuba and complicates the well-intentioned effort to schedule the proposed home-and-home exhibition series.

Though significant progress was reported by both sides during the complex negotiations, there was no way that the two delegations could cut through four decades of political distrust with four days of friendly baseball-related conversation.

Every issue took on both a pragmatic and political dimension. Even the makeup of the U.S. traveling party, which -- to the dismay of Cuban officials -- included a representative of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), created the potential for misunderstanding.

The delegation returned to Baltimore on Tuesday without a firm agreement to schedule the two games, but Angelos pledged to continue working with the Cuban officials to overcome the final obstacles that stand in the way of the goodwill mission.

The odds appear to be stacked against him, but the Orioles owner has defied them before and insists that he will find a way to make the exhibition series a reality.

Still, the only thing certain is this: In the complex arena of Cuban-American relations, a hat is never just a hat.

Goodwill hunting

The Orioles already had made some humanitarian inroads in Cuba before the visit. The Oriole Advocates, a non-profit organization affiliated with the team, sent a large shipment of new and used baseball equipment for distribution to Cuban youngsters last summer -- a gesture that did not go unacknowledged by the Cuban delegation.

Soon after the Orioles contingent touched down at Jose Marti International Airport last week, national baseball commissioner Carlos Rodriguez pointed out an interesting coincidence. While the negotiations for the exhibition series were getting under way in Havana, the national championship tournament for the 9- and 10-year-old division of Cuba's youth baseball program was about to begin in Villa Clara.

Most of the equipment used in that tournament -- which ended the day after the Orioles returned to Baltimore -- was from the shipment sent by the Oriole Advocates as part of their "Cardboard to Leather" Latin American outreach program and distributed jointly by Catholic Relief Services and the Cuban Sports ministry.

The U.S. trade embargo makes it difficult to import new equipment at a reasonable price even for the upper-level teams -- so the Cuban sports officials clearly were happy to make a connection with the Orioles, even as high-ranking government officials publicly questioned the intentions of the U.S. State Department and criticized the U.S. delegation for trying to dictate the terms of the proposed goodwill series.

The Orioles could not entirely escape that perception, because the games could not be scheduled without the approval of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Union official Tony Bernazard, Orioles outfielder B. J. Surhoff and MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson inspected the ballpark on Monday and made a long list of safety-related improvements that must be made before the Orioles will be allowed to play in Havana.

Angelos made it clear that the Orioles would be happy to help the Cuban officials make the improvements as a goodwill gesture to the Cuban people, but even that would require a special exemption from the trade embargo.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing both delegations was the seemingly unbreakable link between baseball and politics. Angelos stressed that the Orioles overture was extended by a private organization with no connection to the U.S. government, but that is not a concept that is easy to sell in a country where the government controls virtually all aspects of society.

The State Department didn't help matters two weeks ago when it publicly tied the Orioles trip -- a venture that had been under discussion for three years -- to a Clinton administration initiative aimed at increasing unofficial contact between the American and Cuban people.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright unilaterally announced that the proceeds from the event would go to Caritas, a Cuba-based Catholic charitable organization not sanctioned by the Cuban government, and almost scuttled the goodwill mission before it could get off the ground.

Angelos and his negotiating team spent a significant portion of the four-day visit trying to fashion a compromise, but the revenue issue remained unsolved when the delegation left Cuba on Tuesday.

"Hopefully, there will be profits, and the money will be put to good use," said Angelos, showing a knack for diplomacy during Tuesday's joint news conference at Havana's International Press Center.

The Catholic non-connection

The Cuban government is sensitive about the increased influence of the Roman Catholic Church since Pope John Paul II visited Cuba last year, so any official contact with Caritas is carefully avoided.

Angelos brought CRS Cuba program director Tom Garofalo on the trip to advise the delegation on possible options for the distribution of proceeds from the proposed exhibition series, but his presense immediately became a point of contention in the negotiations.

The issue wasn't really Garofalo's presence in the group, but his status in the delegation. Press accounts listed him as an official member, though Cuban officials had been assured that he was only a member of the traveling party. They immediately wanted to know which hat he was really wearing.

"I had never intended to have an impact on the negotiations between the Orioles and the Cuban sports officials," said Garofalo. "I just thought it would be helpful to be there, and that's the way it had been presented from the start. That was kind of unfortunate, but that's the way it is with Cuba. It's like an onion, there are a lot of levels."

It is the kind of political tightrope that officials of Caritas walk every day. The Cuban government allows the charitable organization to maintain an office and a bank account in Havana but does not officially sanction its activities.

"We exist," said Caritas director Rolando Suarez, "but legally we do not exist. That puts us at an advantage, because what does not exist cannot disappear."

Suarez is not happy that the distribution of the proceeds from the proposed exhibition series is such a hot-button issue, but not for the reason that you might expect. He, like everyone else in Cuba, is a baseball fan, and he does not want anything to stand in the way of the Orioles making their goodwill trip -- even if Caritas is left out of the equation.

He likens the trip to a medical exchange program that brought U.S. doctors to Cuba. There was a group from Johns Hopkins in Havana at the same time as the Orioles delegation, but baseball is bigger news in both countries.

"The baseball team is the same as the doctors to us," he said. "When people come here, they create relationships. It could be a baseball team or it could be a musical group."

It's just better that it's a baseball team.

"The Orioles are a great team -- almost champions a year ago," Suarez added. "The Cubans are champions. The important thing is not the money. It's the game. Let's see what happens. It's not about Caritas. It's about bringing people here and creating relationships."

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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