FOR 40 YEARS, Cuban-American exiles in South Florida have toasted to the words "Next year in Havana!" The phrase is not only a mantel of hope, a lingering wish that Fidel Castro's regime will fall, but also reminds the exiles of grander days before the communists confiscated their wealth.
As new millennium approaches, the wish remains an unfulfilled prophecy. Castro has survived eight American presidents, fought off the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and survived a crippling economic embargo that has failed to move him from his perch a decade after communism crumbled in the Soviet Union.
In 1994, I was working for a Florida newspaper when thousands of Cubans used makeshift rafts to flee from their homeland's economic crisis. While I attended a Daytona Beach wedding, a table mate with too many Budweisers in his system spoke of the exodus and predicted that Castro would "be gone in no time." He concluded his rant with the words, "Next year in Havana!"
I scoffed. U.S. Cuban policy has been a fiasco that ranks second to the Vietnam War. Castro has withstood U.S. efforts to assassinate him and destabilize his country. Time after time, he has thumbed his nose at the United States, one of the most notable examples being the Mariel boat lift, when he allowed thousands of criminals, mental patients and other undesirables to flee to this country. He has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union by reaching out to other nations, such as France and Spain.
Many Cuban-American exiles still call Castro a "devil," and they are angry because the Baltimore Orioles are scheduled to play the Cuban National Team in Havana on March 28. To them, the game would be a sacrilege, a concession that Castro has won the long battle to end his regime.
Proponents of the exhibition game say it will give Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos an opportunity to bridge the gap between the United States and Cuba. Although Schmoke is often criticized for lacking the leadership skills to get his police commissioner and the Baltimore state's attorney to work together, he is tailor-made for this Cuba mission for several reasons.
First, Baltimore is the back door to Washington, providing the link to the nation's capital and its world embassies. While many U.S. leaders, including President Clinton -- a friend and ally of Schmoke -- are unwilling to reach out to Cuba and Castro for fear of political backlash from Cuban-American voters, the pressure doesn't exist in Baltimore where the Cuban-American population is relatively small. It's also likely that Cubans would be more at ease with Schmoke, a man of color, because they would perceive him as having a keener sense of social conscience than a white American.
As highly publicized U.S. emissaries, Schmoke and Angelos have a responsibility to foment change. Pope John Paul II set the example last year when he embraced Cuba and Castro but grabbed every opportunity to denounce repression of Cuban freedoms. The exhibition game comes as Castro is cracking down on the nation's chief dissidents and threatening independent journalists with jail if they speak out against the government.
Though Baltimore and its baseball team are trying to set aside the political angst of the trip, it's unrealistic to believe that the visit is simply a "people to people" contact. Sure, Schmoke could teach the Cubans how to deal with urban problems, and the Cubans could tell the mayor from "The City That Reads" how they raised their national literacy rate to 97 percent. But the visit also opens the door to naked opportunism. Angelos must covet the possibility of tapping some of Cuba's baseball talent, as well as getting a jump on the business opportunities that would arise with the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Yet, whenever possible, the mayor, Angelos and Orioles players should make every attempt to show Castro, his government leaders and the Cuban people not that democracy is superior to communism but that political repression is wrong, especially as we approach a new millennium. Cuba's leaders might remain unswayed today, but such reminders open the door to change tomorrow.
Five years ago, I sat in a tiny rural shop outside Orlando, Fla., meeting with the leaders of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, mesmerized by their tales of the failed invasion of April 17, 1961.
The 66-year-old group leader with his movie star coolness -- tight black shirt, olive skin, slicked-back, jet-black hair with touches of gray -- described holding his rifle in the belly of a cargo ship drifting toward the Cuban shores, waiting to reclaim his homeland. The squeaky engines of the rusting old ships telegraphed their arrival.
The ill-equipped exiles stormed the beaches and were pummeled and captured within hours, as they looked out to see idle U.S. ships and planes on the horizon.
He spent 22 months in a Cuban prison that he summed up with these words: "Do you like macaroni?"
Another in his party held a picture of the Havana mansion that his grandfather owned, seized by Castro. In telling his tale, he described the frustration and pain of having all that your family worked for -- its heritage -- stripped.
The U.S. government and the Cuban-American exiles have had 40 years to topple Castro with isolationism, political rhetoric and war. They failed.
It is now time to try dialogue, forgiveness and understanding to show Castro and his Cuba that freedom brings rewards, economic or otherwise.
For whether you are a 66-year-old Bay of Pigs Veteran or a member of the Cuban-American exile alliances or the mayor of Baltimore or the Baltimore Orioles' owner, the goal remains the same:
"Next year in Havana!"
Gerard Shields covers City Hall for The Sun.
Pub Date: 03/14/99