It's time for baseball diplomacy, Baltimore style.
The Cuban national team arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night, clearing the final political and logistical hurdles that stood in the way of tonight's historic game against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
The Canadian charter jet carrying the Cuban all-stars and a large contingent of sports officials, former players and youth athletes touched down shortly after 8 p.m. It was greeted by an official welcoming party that included Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Major League Baseball Vice President Sandy Alderson. Thetraveling party of more than 300 then was ushered away for the hourlong process of passing through immigration and customs checkpoints.
Fear of defections by members of the all-star team had prompted Cuban sports officials to request stringent security measures at BWI and at the delegation's headquarters at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, but Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials who processed the flight indicated last night that they did not have any "jumpers" -- travelers requesting political asylum.
There had been speculation Saturday night that the trip might run aground over a disagreement between Cuban officials and the State Department about the number of visas issued to the Cuban delegation, but Alderson said that he never felt the Cuban visit would fall through.
"I think there was concern about what had happened," said Alderson, "but I don't think that ultimately this was going to break down over that issue."
The visa issue was settled, in much the same way as similar problems that erupted in Cuba in the days leading up to the Orioles visit in March, but the plane arrived several hours later than originally scheduled, forcing the Cubans to cancel a scheduled workout at Oriole Park.
"Everything went fine," said Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos. "There were some issues with the visas and security that were resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.
"The last 72 hours, my brother [Louis] and I and Tom Marudas have been working diligently with the Cuban advance team. There were never any problems at all. Everything was worked out. I think all of us feel pretty good about the fact that this is starting to come to fruition."
The flight left Havana at approximately 5 p.m., after Cuban leader Fidel Castro saw the 25-member team off at Jose Marti International Airport. Castro, whose high-profile presence at the March 28 game against the Orioles at Cuba's Latin American Stadium added heavy political overtones to the event, also attended the team's workouts during the week leading up to yesterday's departure.
Castro's involvement has further rankled members of the staunchly anti-Castro Cuban exile community, many of whom planned to travel from Florida and several other states to demonstrate against the goodwill baseball exchange.
There were demonstrators at BWI's international terminal, but not the type who have become most commonly identified with the controversial baseball exchange.
The loudest voice in the Cuban-American community emanates from Miami, where a strong anti-Castro movement all but controls the agenda, but several Cuban-American groups showed up at BWI to demonstrate their support for the Orioles' Cuba initiative.
"The perception of the press is that we are so polarized, that we are either for or against Castro," said Delvis Fernandez, president of the Cuban American Alliance, a Washington group that is licensed by the U.S. State Department to transport humanitarian aid to the Cuban people. "I think that is a remnant of the Cold War.
"We are an organization of Cuban-Americans who support engagement in cultural events and sporting events. We represent a cross-section of the Cuban-American community that supports baseball, or musical events and anything that could lead to a relationship of mutual benefit to both countries."
The Cuban American Alliance brought no placards or banners, choosing to present members of the organization as more of a welcoming committee than a group of political demonstrators. The more visible Howard County Friends of Latin America sold T-shirts that expressed support for tonight's game. The Maryland Coalition to End the U.S. Embargo Against Cuba and the All Peoples Congress painted placards as members waited for the plane to arrive from Havana.
Chelsea Wheeler, 11, busily painted a sign that said "Cuba Rocks" while her mother explained why they had come to BWI to welcome the Cuban contingent.
Tina Wheeler of Baltimore said she became involved in the movement to end the embargo after her 16-year-old daughter, Anita, traveled to Cuba in 1997 for the 14th International Festival for Youth and Students.
"She lived there for two weeks and it was wonderful for her," Wheeler said. "She said these people are just like us and they care about the things we care about."
Members of the Communist Party USA distributed issues of the May Day edition of the communist newspaper People's Weekly World, which -- curiously -- did not contain any reference to the game.
Andre Powell, an organizer for the All Peoples Congress, held a sign that read "Bienvenidos a Hermanos Cubanos," which translates, "Welcome to our Cuban brothers." He plans to participate in a rally outside the stadium today and then go in and watch the game.
"This is the only time I'll root against the Orioles," he said. "I've never rooted against them before in my life. I was born and raised on the Orioles."
Those mixed feelings were clearly reflected in a sign held by Asher Strauss, 11, in the lobby of BWI's international wing. One side was pro-Orioles, the other side was proof that it is impossible to remove the political elements from the baseball exchange. It read, simply: "Go Castro."
The tenor was different at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, where a handful of Cuban-Americans awaited the arrival of the Cuban players and loudly encouraged them to defect.
The small group shouted "Long live a free Cuba" and "Ask for political asylum" in Spanish as members of the traveling party made their way up the elevators.
Emilio Vasquez, the trustee of the Cuban-American National Foundation, tried to hand out leaflets encouraging players to defect, but was kept at a distance by hotel security personnel.
"This is not just another game like Peter Angelos said," Vasquez said. "Human rights is not a game."
Donna Truesdell of Cumberland waited outside the hotel with her husband and son for a glimpse of the Cuban contingent as it arrived in several buses.
"This is just a piece of history," Truesdell said. "This is our son, who is 15, and we just thought it was important for him to experience. Castro's not a nice man. I wish he would die soon. But these ballplayers are just poor, hard-working people. So if any of these fellows wants to become an Oriole, we would be happy to hide them in the basement for awhile."
Sun staff writers Joe Mathews and Edward Lee contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 5/03/99