Cuba Baseball Team’s Visit to Miami Spurs Complicated Emotions

MIAMI — This is the most Cuban region of the United States.

It is estimated that more than 1.2 million people of Cuban descent reside in the Miami metropolitan area. That, however, comes with a long and complex history: The city was largely rebuilt over the past six decades by Cuban exiles fleeing communist rule on the nearby Caribbean island. The region is an epicenter of anti-Castro activism and is where, in the past, artists sympathetic to the Cuban government have been protested or forbidden.

That complicated history is what adds intrigue and importance to proceedings Sunday as the Cuban baseball team makes what is believed to be its first trip to Miami since the communist revolution of 1959. The once mighty team, which has faded as His best players have gone to the United States, he fought his way through the World Baseball Classic group stage in Taiwan and shocked the international baseball world by winning a quarterfinal game in Japan. That qualified the team to the semifinals of the quadrennial tournament, where it will face the winner of a quarterfinal match between the United States and Venezuela.

The venue stadium for the championship rounds of the tournament: LoanDepot Park in the Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana.

“In Miami, symbolism is very powerful,” said Andy Gomez, 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 also as a government propaganda tool, is expected to arouse mixed emotions in the South Florida community.

“I’m there for sports, not for politics,” Josuet Martínez, 48, a Cuban baseball fan, said in Spanish. “We are going to enjoy the sport.”

Martinez said this Friday as he stood with his brother inside the Westland Mall in Hialeah, a city with a large Cuban population in Miami-Dade County. Martinez was in a Lids store in the mall with the Cuban team logo sewn on 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 in search of better economic opportunities. He expects the Cuban team to win on Sunday, but he also hopes the opponent will be Venezuela because he doesn’t 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,” Martinez said.

Others are not so sure. Armando Lopez, 68, lives near the stadium, the home of the Miami Marlins, but he 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 began to “evolve and realize the manipulation of sports teams.”

“It’s not that as a Cuban you don’t love a Cuban team,” he said in Spanish. “You stand in solidarity with a team from your country. But the problem is 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 to see how different it is here versus there, that the people here live in freedom.”

The contrasting points of view were emblematic of a changing atmosphere among Cubans in South Florida. The older generations fled for ideological reasons, while the younger waves left for economic reasons. Large protests by Cuban artists were more common in past decades. The children and grandchildren of Cuban immigrants have been interested in visiting the island.

And there has been some normalization of relations between countries, sometimes through baseball. On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays played an exhibition game against the Cuban team in Havana, with President Barack Obama sitting next to President Raúl Castro of Cuba. In 2018, MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached an agreement to pave the way for players to compete in the United States without defecting, but the Trump administration later rejected 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 in one group,” said Gomez, who came to the United States as a child and is now 68 years old. For example, he said, some Cubans of his generation suffer from what he called Cuba. tiredness, in the sense that they have been waiting for the big moment of change but it has not happened, even after the death of Fidel Castro in 2016. And for the people of his daughter’s generation, he said, the issue of Cuba is something irrelevant because it is not part of your daily life.

“I think there will be mixed emotions across the board,” Gomez said, adding that he planned to cheer on the Cuban flag during Sunday’s game, but would also cheer on Team USA if he were at the game. . “Those wounds will open up again and bring back bad memories for many people. I think it will bring a certain level of madness to some other groups planning to protest.”

Miguel Saavedra, president of the Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa, said his organization was planning outside the stadium and in other areas around Little Havana over the weekend. He said Friday that he wasn’t sure how many people would participate.

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

Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Cuban president, has supported the national team, say goodbye to the players in person before leaving for training before the WBC On social media, he has put on the team cap and shared messages About them.

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

“It is extremely disrespectful to the entire Cuban exile community that this team is here,” Hialeah Republican mayor Esteban Bovo said in a statement. “I am outraged and I support the families of the political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the prisons of the regime without being able to see their families. I stand with the opposition and all those who peacefully express their opinion on the game of baseball.”

The Cuban federation did not respond to messages seeking comment. But the Manager of Cuba Armando Johnson told an official government outlet that the team had talked to the players about what to expect in Miami.

“They know that we are going to play in a place where unfortunately we are going to face provocations,” he said in Spanish. “But in that sense, we are also prepared to prevent these maneuvers from achieving their objectives, and we are convinced that we will also find support. That spirit that animates us is that of baseball, and with that conviction we are going to prove ourselves on the field, always looking for more, so that the last word is said there”.

A security reinforcement is expected in the stadium before the game on Sunday. Fans can express themselves, such as with music, boos or flags, but there have been tournament-wide limits on signage. According Loan Depot Park Rules, guests may not enter the stadium with banners larger than 3 feet by 5 feet or signs with “obscene language or disrespectful statements” or “statements about political affiliations, social and economic issues, or other statements that undermine civil liberties.” As of Saturday morning, tickets were available for as little as $100 in the secondary market.

The Cuban team has been to Florida before. In June 2021, she played in an Olympic qualifying tournament in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie, but went 1-2 and failed to earn a spot at the Summer Games. There were some demonstrations outside the stadiums.

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

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

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

After pressure from defecting Cuban players trying to form their own WBC team, the Cuban federation changed its stance. For the first time, he allowed defecting players to represent him in this WBC, but only some accepted and others were not invited or declined the offer.

To get this far in the tournament, Cuba finished 2-2 in Pool A in Taiwan and advanced as the top seed in that pool. In a quarterfinal matchup on 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 will train at Loan Depot Park, hours before the United States and Venezuela meet on the same court.