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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cuba baseball team’s visit to Miami spurs complicated emotions

Javier Báez, above, and Eddie Rosario homered in the first inning as Puerto Rico jumped to a 4-0 lead, but Mexico came back to win, 5-4, in a World Baseball Classic quarterfinal game Friday night in Miami.

By James Wagner

South Florida is the most Cuban region in the United States.

More than 1.2 million people of Cuban heritage are estimated to reside in the greater Miami area. That, though, comes with a long, complex history: The city was largely remade over the past six decades by Cuban exiles who fled the communist government on the nearby Caribbean island. The region is an epicenter of anti-Castro activism and is where, in the past, entertainers sympathetic to the Cuban government were protested or banned.

That complicated history is what would add intrigue and importance to the proceedings Sunday when the Cuban national baseball team was to make what is believed to be its first trip to Miami since the communist revolution in 1959. The once-mighty team, which has faded as its top players have left for the United States, worked its way through the group stage of the World Baseball Classic in Taiwan and shocked the international baseball world by winning a quarterfinal game in Japan. That sent the team to the semifinals of the quadrennial tournament, where it was to face the United States, a 9-7 winner over Venezuela in the quarterfinals Saturday night.

The stadium hosting the championship rounds of the tournament is loanDepot Park, which is in the Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana.

“In Miami, the symbolism is very powerful,” said Andy Gómez, a retired professor of Cuban studies at the University of Miami. “For both sides.”

The presence of the Cuban team, which is seen not only as a symbol of the country’s most popular sport but as a propaganda tool of the government, is expected to stir conflicting emotions in the South Florida community.

“I’m there for sports, not for politics,” Josuet Martínez, 46, who is Cuban and a baseball fan, said in Spanish. “We’re going to enjoy sports.”

Martínez said this on Friday while standing with his brother inside Westland Mall in Hialeah, a city with a large Cuban population in Miami-Dade County. Martínez was at a Lids store in the mall having the Cuban team’s logo sewn onto a blue hat because the store did not have any of the official team hats in stock.

He said he left his business and his country seven months ago to come to the United States for better economic opportunities. He hoped the Cuban team would win Sunday, but he also hoped that the opponent would be Venezuela because he did not want to choose between his native country and his current home.

“In Miami, there are a lot of Cubans, so I imagine there will be a lot of fans,” Martínez said.

Others are not so sure. Armando López, 68, lives near the stadium, the home of the Miami Marlins, but said he did not plan to attend the game. When he lived in Cuba, he was a fan of the national team. But after he left for the United States in 1980, he said, he started “evolving and realizing the manipulation of the sports teams.”

“It’s not that as a Cuban you don’t love a team from Cuba,” he said in Spanish. “You sympathize with a team from your country. But the problem is the indoctrination.” He added that the players, many of whom have chosen not to leave the Cuban team in favor of the MLB, where they could earn millions, should “come here to play and come see how different it is here versus there, that people here live in liberty.”

The contrasting viewpoints were emblematic of a changing atmosphere among Cubans in South Florida. Older generations fled for ideological reasons, while younger waves have left for economic ones. Large protests of Cuban artists were more common in past decades. Children and grandchildren of Cuban immigrants have grown interested in visiting the island.

And there has been some normalization of relations between the countries, at times through baseball. On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team in Havana, with President Barack Obama seated next to President Raúl Castro of Cuba. In 2018, MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation struck a deal to ease the path for players to compete in the United States without defecting — but the Trump administration later nixed it, saying it constituted a violation of trade laws because the Cuban federation was part of the government in Havana.

“You can’t put the entire Cuban American community into one group,” said Gómez, who came to the United States as a child and is now 68. For example, he said, some Cubans of his generation suffer from what he called Cuba fatigue, in that they have been waiting for the big moment of change but it hasn’t happened, even after the death of Fidel Castro in 2016. And for people of Gómez’s daughter’s generation, he said, the Cuba topic is somewhat irrelevant because it is not part of their daily lives.

“I think there’ll be mixed emotions across the board,” Gómez said, adding that he planned to cheer for the Cuban flag during Sunday’s game, but that he would also cheer for the United States team if it was in the game. “Those wounds will open up again and bring back bad memories for many people. I think it will bring out a certain level of madness in some other groups that are planning to protest.”

Miguel Saavedra, president of the Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa, said his organization was planning protests outside the stadium and in other areas around Little Havana over the weekend. He said Friday that he was unsure how many people would participate.

“For them, it’s a symbol,” Saavedra, 65, said in Spanish, referring to the Cuban government and the baseball team. “For us, it’s something that we have to condemn. Everything that comes from the regime in Cuba is condemnable.”

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has supported the national team, saying goodbye to players in person before they left for training before the WBC. On social media, he has donned the team’s hat and shared messages about them.

Some politicians in the United States have spoken out against the game.

“It is of the utmost disrespect to the entire Cuban exile community that this team is here,” Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo, a Republican, said in a statement. “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. I stand with the opposition, and all those who peacefully express their opinion about the baseball game.”

Cuba manager Armando Johnson has said the team had talked to players about what to expect in Miami. He said in Spanish on Saturday that they hoped to play their best “so the crowd that is against us will also enjoy a good game.”

“You have fans supporting you and fans against you,” said designated hitter Alfredo Despaigne, 36. “That’s natural in baseball. It doesn’t affect us. I played for nine years in Japan and we had fans supporting our team and others supporting other teams. So everyone is free to feel and to think whatever they want.”

Tightened security at the stadium is expected for Sunday’s game. Fans can express themselves — such as with instruments or boos or flags — but there have been limits all tournament on signage. According to loanDepot Park rules, guests cannot enter the stadium with banners containing “foul language or disrespectful statements” or “statements regarding political affiliation, social and economic matters or other statements that undermine civil liberties.”

The Cuban national team has been to Florida before. In June 2021, it played in an Olympic qualifying tournament in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie, both north of Miami. There were a few demonstrations outside the stadiums.

To even compete in the WBC, the Cuban team needed special permission from the U.S. government because of its sanctions, which prohibit doing business with Cuba. After consulting with the State Department, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the country’s trade sanctions, issued specific licenses to allow Cuba’s inclusion and the “voluntary participation of certain Cuban origin baseball players,” including those on MLB teams, a Treasury spokesperson said.

But unlike other countries, the Cuban federation and its players cannot receive any revenue or prize money from the WBC under the licenses, the spokesperson said.

Cuba was not expected to reach this far in the tournament. The country has won three Olympic gold medals and two silver in the six Summer Games featuring baseball. It also was the runner-up in the inaugural 2006 WBC. But as more and more players defected to play in MLB and elsewhere, the team struggled internationally. It did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and hasn’t reached a WBC semifinal since that first tournament.

After pressure from defected Cuban players trying to form their own WBC team, the Cuban federation changed its stance. For the first time, it allowed defected players to represent it in this WBC — but only some accepted and others weren’t invited or rejected the offer. Despaigne called the MLB talent, such as Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert Jr., “a very important injection” of talent.

With their help, Cuba finished 2-2 in Pool A play in Taiwan and advanced as the top seed from that group. In a quarterfinal matchup Wednesday in Japan, it defeated Australia, 4-3, and then flew to South Florida.

On Friday, the team practiced at MLB’s Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, about two hours north of Miami. And on Saturday morning, the team trained at loanDepot Park with MLB security officials and local police officers watching, hours before the United States and Venezuela faced off on the same field.

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