WASHINGTON -- The White House boosted chances for exhibition games between the Orioles and a Cuban all-star team last night by showing new flexibility on how the proceeds should be spent.
Backing away from a previous American insistence that the money be used to benefit the Cuban people directly, a senior administration official said it could go for other charitable uses.
"Our strong preference is that it go directly to the Cuban people. But, that said, it might be possible to find some other good cause -- provided it doesn't go to the Castro government and that that can be ensured," the official said. "We're reasonable people."
The new stance emerged after a meeting between President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, and Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Angelos has been trying for three years to arrange the exhibition games. The Clinton administration recently gave him permission to talk to the Cuban government about them, but he came away from a visit to Havana without an agreement.
The main sticking point was the question of how the proceeds could be spent. The State Department angered the Castro regime by saying the profits would go to Caritas, a Catholic relief agency operating in Cuba.
The Cuban government said the profits instead should go to help the victims of Hurricane Mitch who are being assisted by Cuban doctors in Central America. The senior administration official did not rule out the possibility that some of the money could go to hurricane victims.
Angelos went into the meeting with Berger, a serious baseball fan, hoping that the White House would refrain from dictating how the profits are spent, and it appears he succeeded.
Angelos refused to speak to a reporter as his car pulled away from the White House.
"I can't comment," he said, referring all queries to the White House.
Officially, the American position was unchanged.
"We've got to be clear that no profits can go to the Cuban government," said State Department spokesman Mike Hammer. "Angelos, we believe, will now continue his discussions with the Cuban government to see if he can break the impasse and get their acceptance that the money used for charity benefit the Cuban people."
One of the officials at the meeting was State Department counselor Wendy Sherman, a Baltimore native who is playing a key role in Central American hurricane relief efforts.
While money was the main problem, other trouble spots remain. A group of fiercely anti-Castro members of Congress is trying to persuade the baseball players' association to nix the deal, appealing to them on the basis of labor rights.
"The players' union should not allow themselves to be utilized by Angelos and his type who just want to go down and play footsie with Castro and ignore the total violation of worker rights in Cuba," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican.
Donald Fehr, head of the players' union, is due to meet on Capitol Hill Thursday with a group of anti-Castro congressmen, including Diaz-Balart. He said yesterday from New York that the players had not yet taken a position on the issue.
The two games tentatively have been set for March 28 in Havana and April 3 at Camden Yards.
Pub Date: 1/30/99