White House help sought to save O's-Cuba games; Clinton aide Berger, Angelos likely to meet


WASHINGTON -- Orioles owner Peter Angelos is seeking high-level White House help to salvage a plan for exhibition games in March between his club and a Cuban all-star team, according to administration officials.

The proposal has become mired in four decades of Cold War tension between Washington and Havana. Experts say it could be doomed without some sign of flexibility by either side on how proceeds from the exhibition games are used.

Angelos and President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, are likely to hold a meeting soon, maybe this week, officials said.

"I can confirm that a meeting has been requested and is being looked at, but there's no answer yet," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Angelos returned last week from a visit to Havana without any Cuban agreement on his proposal for two exhibition games between the Orioles and a Cuban team -- one in Havana and one at Camden Yards.

In allowing the Orioles to explore the idea with Cuban officials, the Clinton administration said firmly that none of the profits from the games could go to the government of Fidel Castro. Instead, U.S. officials said they should go to an independent agency and be used to benefit the Cuban people directly.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright mentioned Caritas, the Catholic Church's international aid organization, as the conduit for the money. Since then, however, officials have cited Caritas just as an example of the kind of organization that could handle the proceeds.

Cuba, in turn, has said the proceeds should go to aid the victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America.

The administration disclosed its tentative support for the exhibition games in early January, when it announced a series of steps to enhance people-to-people contact between the United States and Cuba.

In an official response, Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament, was generally negative about the Clinton proposals, but sounded more open to the Orioles' idea for exhibition games.

Cubans were annoyed that a representative of Catholic Relief Services, a sister organization to Caritas, flew to Cuba on Angelos' plane to advise the delegation on possible options for the distribution of proceeds.

The representative, Tom Garofalo, says he wasn't an official part of the delegation. He said his organization wants the games to go forward whether the Catholic Church plays a role or not.

"The value of the games, in our view and in the view of Caritas, is the way that they could serve to bring our two peoples together," Garofalo said.

Experts on U.S.-Cuba relations said the outcome was uncertain.

The Cubans "don't want to make it easy to fund groups that are independent of the government," said Bernard Aronson, a former State Department official who recently co-authored a Council on Foreign Relations study on U.S.-Cuba ties.

But he said a compromise was possible, and believes the Clinton administration wants the event to happen.

Richard Nuccio, a former adviser on Cuba to President Clinton, said a single game in Havana was far more likely than the proposed pair of exhibition games. A game in Baltimore would cause Cuba to worry about defections by members of its its team, he said.

"Everybody's playing politics with this," he said.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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