Mistrust stifles O's-Cuba games; Agreement unlikely to be reached this week


WASHINGTON -- With time slipping away for the Orioles to arrange a pair of exhibition games with a Cuban all-star team, the United States and the Castro government are still divided by a wall of mistrust.

For both governments, the games are less about baseball than about the relationship between the Cuban and American people. Neither side wants the other to gain too much of a public relations advantage.

Little has happened to advance the games since Jan. 29, when Orioles owner Peter Angelos and representatives from Major League Baseball met at the White House with Samuel R. Berger, the president's national security adviser.

Sources suggest that a meeting between Cuban and Orioles representatives could occur as early as today in Washington. But there is little optimism that an agreement can be reached this week. Angelos, who has been pressing for the games for several years and who traveled to Havana last month in hopes of setting them up, did not return calls yesterday.

U.S. officials say they are waiting for the Orioles to obtain an answer from Cuba on whether it wants the exhibition games to proceed in March. Then the Clinton administration will decide whether to issue a license allowing the games to proceed.

But baseball sources say the Orioles are waiting for the Clinton administration to specify a clear, unified position on how proceeds from the exhibition games can be used. Without American flexibility on this key question, the sources say, the Orioles won't be able to win agreement from Havana.

Meanwhile, spring training is approaching. Ideally, the deal should be firmed up this week, baseball sources say. If there is much more delay, the games would have to be put off to another year. As currently envisioned, they would occur March 28 in Havana and April 3 at Oriole Park.

After the Jan. 29 meeting, the White House signaled more flexibility on how the proceeds, from gate receipts and television rights, should be spent. While sticking to its insistence that none of the profits go to the Castro regime, it backed away from its demand that the money go to a private charity working in Cuba such as Caritas, the Catholic relief agency.

But a number of U.S. officials are firm in demanding that the proceeds be used somehow to benefit the Cuban people and have suggested to the Orioles ways this could be achieved.

For its part, Cuba wants the profits used to supply medicine to the victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America who are being helped by Cuban doctors. This would draw attention to its humanitarian efforts and would avoid putting a harsh spotlight on poverty and other humanitarian needs in Cuba.

Beyond this issue, however, is the apparent fear in Havana that the games are part of an American effort to weaken the Castro regime's control over its population.

Officials here say there is little the United States can do at this point to subvert the Castro regime. Instead, the intent of American policy is to "reach out to the Cuban people to be more independent of the government in their daily lives," a U.S. official said.

The administration appears to be divided, however, on how far it should go in cooperating with Havana. It is constrained by domestic political pressures, such as the need to work with Sen. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a fervent foe of Castro.

The North Carolina Republican wants to see Cuba follow the example of Poland, where Communist power eroded under pressure from the Catholic Church, an independent labor movement and other aspects of a civil society.

In a recent speech, Helms joked: "I want the Cuban national team to come to Baltimore to play the Orioles first, and then the Orioles can go to Havana to play the few players of the Cuban national team who haven't defected."

In the House, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, and other anti-Castro members have urged the Major League Baseball Players Association to oppose the Orioles-Cuban games.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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