Cuba’s national baseball team’s game in Miami revives old political battles

Estudio Revolución /Office of the Presidency of Cuba

Do baseball players wearing the Cuban national team uniform represent the Cuban government, or do they represent the island’s people? Can exiles reconcile their opposition to the island’s dictatorship with their passion for the game?

The questions are decades old. But they are once again at the center of a heated controversy on both sides of the Florida Straits that has also once again divided the Cuban-American community in Miami.

A Cuba national team with players from the island and others with contracts in foreign leagues — including four from Major League Baseball — is heading to Miami to compete in a World Baseball Classic semifinal Sunday.

After years of some spectacular losses in major international tournaments, the Cuba team’s victory over Australia on Wednesday has again put the country at the top of its game. That the Cuba team will now play in Miami, home to the largest Cuban-American community in the U.S., adds to an already heated debate over the participation of MLB stars in the Cuban national team, a historical first.

Protests are already planned, and local politicians are criticizing the decision to allow the players from Cuba to come play in the United States.

Here is a guide to understanding the debate and what you might see on your TV screens Sunday (7 p.m., FS1) when the Cuba team takes the field at loanDepot Park in Little Havana.

What originated the controversy?

For decades, Cuban ruler Fidel Castro labeled those leaving the island hoping to become professional players as “traitors” who should not be allowed to return to the country. And many still can’t: Yuli Gurriel, the former Houston Astros third baseman who recently signed with the Marlins, was not allowed to enter Cuba last year.

But that didn’t stop a talent drain, as low salaries and poor prospects pushed some of the most promising players to emigrate, sometimes risking their lives at sea or at the mercy of smugglers.

Because baseball players who defected were seen as counterrevolutionaries, Cuban baseball authorities actively resisted the idea of a unified national team that would include players living abroad. There is an unwritten regulation banning players who defect from the national team from returning to the island, which was recently reduced from eight years to five. Many MLB Cuban stars retired without ever being able to wear the Cuba team T-shirt. But things changed last November when the Cuban Baseball Federation contacted a small group of MLB players to ask if they wanted to be part of the national team, though many of the biggest stars were not invited or declined to participate.

In the end, only four — the Chicago White Sox’s Luis Robert Jr. and Yoán Moncada, the Chicago Cubs’ Roenis Elías, and Yoenis Cespedes, who last played in the majors with the New York Mets in 2020 — said yes, opening a new chapter in baseball history that has prompted strong political reactions among Cuban exiles, former players and Miami politicians.

What people are saying

Many Cuban exiles flatly reject the visit of the Cuba team to Miami, arguing that the players are complicit with the island’s authorities. Castro eliminated professional baseball, so players on the island receive a state salary. The government has long used baseball for political and propaganda purposes. The timing of the visit also coincides with the reluctance of Cuban authorities to release more than a thousand political prisoners despite pleas by the Vatican, the European Union and the Biden administration.

“This is not a protest against the World Baseball Classics,” said YouTube influencer Alexander Otaola on his show Thursday, speaking of planned protests for Sunday. “We are doing it so the team that will come here representing the dictatorship understands that we don’t like accomplices.”

Some active and former MLB Cuban baseball players who had to abandon their families to come to play in the United States find it difficult to accept this sudden change, and they have directed their criticism squarely at the Cuban government.

“When I left, I was a traitor, a worm. They should display some self-respect because after all they did with all of us, now they want the players to go play for them,” Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman told Cuban sports blog Swing Completo. “I have no resentment, but when people sometimes write to me on social media that the team only represents the [Cuban] people, I don’t think so.”

Edilberto Oropesa, a former Cuban pitcher who played in Major League Baseball from 2001-04, said he doesn’t agree with those who have accepted the Cuban government’s invitation to join the national team. But said he respects their decision. “It’s a free country,” he told the Miami Herald.

He also believes that players on the island do not have much room to dissent if they have decided to stay and live there. “Those who made the Cuba team knew they had to do what they [government officials] say,” Oropesa added.

Last year, Oropesa and other Cuban exiles created the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players. They tried to assemble a team of Cubans playing in professional leagues worldwide that could represent the island at the World Baseball Classic. But the WBC didn’t allow it because its rules grant such rights only to national federations.

The former pitcher pushed back against those arguing that politics should not be brought into sports.

“They were the ones that brought in politics since 1959 when they took away professional baseball,” he said, speaking of the Cuban government. “It is something Machiavellian that they are doing for their interests because they are drowning economically and need to show the world and the Americans that they are changing. But what change, if it is the same government?”

Other Cuban activists, however, said the fact that baseball is a national pastime and one of the few activities that most Cubans are still able to enjoy on the island is more important than the government’s political use of the game.

“It matters more to me that my family and Cuban baseball fans, in general, have a few hours of joy with baseball than all the populist and inefficient propaganda that the Communist Party is doing with some baseball players, who mostly despise [the Party] deep in their souls,” said Cuban activist Saily González.

The reaction of local politicians

U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, sent a letter to State Department Secretary Antony Blinken on Thursday requesting information about the Cuban government officials or “minders” that usually travel with official sports delegations to provide security and prevent athletes from defecting.

Since the Biden administration authorized the MLB Cuban players to join the Cuba team, he also demanded an explanation about the decision and how “encouraging further exploitation of Cuban baseball players is consistent with the U.S. policy to prevent human trafficking and prevent revenue from enriching the Cuban people’s oppressors.”

On Friday, Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo called the Cuba team coming to Miami “utmost disrespect to the entire Cuban exile community.”

“I am outraged, and I stand with the families of the political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the regime’s prisons without being able to see their families,” Bovo said. “I stand with the opposition, and all those who peacefully express their opinion about the baseball game.”

What the Cuban government is doing

Not surprisingly, Cuban authorities are seizing the opportunity to use the team as a distraction at a difficult time for a population struggling with food shortages and increased repression. They have also used it for a propaganda campaign to boost nationalist feelings, increase participation in the upcoming general elections and present Cuban exiles as hateful.

As part of the campaign, the team was renamed “Team Asere,” an informal term, akin to buddy or pal, that Cubans used to address each other, and several government-linked accounts are using it as a hashtag on social media. There is a government-produced song and a video that Cuba’s handpicked president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, tweeted on Friday. He bid goodbye to the players in an official ceremony before they headed for training in Japan last month and has frequently tweeted about the subject. Cuban government accounts on social media have also mentioned the team in propaganda for the upcoming elections, in which only Communist Party candidates can participate.

At the same time, Cuban state media is pushing the narrative that the national baseball team might be a unifying force and that those criticizing it from Miami are moved by hatred.

What could happen Sunday at the stadium?

Otaola has already urged his followers to bring signs criticizing the Cuban regime to the game and participate in “peaceful protests” outside loanDepot park on Sunday. Kenia Fallat, director of communications for the City of Miami, said the city had granted at least two permits for protests near the stadium.

In his YouTube show, Otaola said Thursday that he has personally spent a significant amount on tickets for seats in “strategic areas” around the stadium, so audiences in Cuba watching the game on TV may be able to see the anti-government signs. He also said he is making arrangements so Patria y Vida, the song that has become a symbol of anti-government protests and sentiment, would be played between innings.

Several exiles organizations comprising the Assembly of Resistance will also give a press conference near the stadium on Sunday morning.

While those calling for protests have insisted that they will be peaceful, there have been scuffles in the past between Cuban athletes, sports officials and exiles. For example, in 1989, Cuban Olympian Alberto Juantorena clashed with some protesters at a track-and-field event in Fort Lauderdale. A decade later, in 1999, several Cuban players hit a Cuban exile who evaded security and entered the field with a sign reading “Human rights first” during the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.

After showing a video of the incident on Thursday, Otoala said: “This is the revolutionary sport.”

El Nuevo Herald sports reporter Jorge Ebro contributed to this story.