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PHOTO: John F. Saltor/AP
Is it my turn yet? President Barack Obama hopes to spark people-to-people contact beyond politics—unlike this 1963 ping-pong game between Fidel Castro and U.S. students.
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In 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban national team, first in Baltimore and later in Havana, some believed baseball diplomacy could help thaw U.S.-Cuba relations. “Stadiums were packed [in both countries],” recalls former Washington Post investigative journalist Scott Armstrong, who helped organize the exchange with team owner Peter Angelos. “It was a great feeling.”

But some, like Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez, called it a “ludicrous” and “ridiculous” event while gearing up protests in Baltimore. Though a Democrat, Menendez’ position encapsulated the views of many hardline anti-Castro Cuban-Americans and presaged the policy reversal by President George W. Bush.

With a few exceptions, such as the Lost Coast Pirates, a Little League team from California that played in Havana in 2000, President Bill Clinton’s baseball diplomacy fizzled out during the Bush years.

But earlier this year, President Barack Obama relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, reversing measures put in place by his predecessor. According to a high-level State Department official, the recent “changes in restrictions would allow for many sports exchanges […] we have seen it with recent music concerts and I believe sports will soon follow. It is to the U.S.’s advantage to have more society-to- society dialogue.”

Obama’s changes coincide with rumors that the Cuban Baseball Federation is considering allowing its players to join professional leagues in other countries. This may be just a recognition of reality. Defections of Cuban players are now commonplace. Recent reports say that around 20 Cuban players who had defected currently play in the U.S. major leagues—most notably Aroldis Chapman, who last year signed a $30 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds.

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Sports and the Cold War: Soviet Union and China

During the Cold War, sports exchanges were a way of gauging the temperature of the relationship between the U.S. and its communist rivals. They were also a tool for breaking down barriers.

In the summer of 1989, American yachtsmen sailed in the Black Sea Regatta, after the Soviet Odessa Sports Club participated in the Liberty Cup Yacht Race around the Statue of Liberty. Then the Calgary Flames and the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League (NHL) toured the Soviet Union. And there was also the ill-fated attempt to stage a college football game between Illinois and Southern California in Moscow’s Dynamo Stadium—the so-called Glasnost Bowl that never materialized.

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PHOTO: AP
"Be it baseball or ping-pong, sports have enabled different cultures and different political systems to get together on another level. Politicians should understand that sport is a great equalizer."
Stephen Bull, one of the organizers of Chinese table tennis team’s visit to the White House Rose Garden in 1972, one year after the U.S. team's trip to China.

As perestroika began to take hold, Soviet athletes appeared in greater numbers in the U.S. For Soviet athletes, as in the case of Chapman, the desire to earn hard currency played an important role. In 1989, while playing a tournament in Florida, teenage tennis player Natalya Zvereva ignored the USSR’s policy on prize money and hired her own agent and announced she would keep more of her prize money—a stance soon followed by the top Soviet tennis player, Andrei Chesnokov. That same year, the Soviet Boxing Federation reached a deal with American promoters to allow 10 Soviet boxers to train and eventually fight professional rounds in the U.S.; the Soviet national baseball team completed a tour of the U.S. in mid-April; Sergei Priakin became the first Soviet athlete to play with a North American professional sports team when he joined an NHL team; and Soviet diver Valery Statsenko participated in the Alamo International Diving Championships.

By the time the Soviet Union fell, Soviet athletes were present in figure skating, long-distance running, cycling, swimming, and yachting in the United States.

And Cuba?

You could have counted similar gestures toward Cuba on one hand. During President Jimmy Carter’s administration, two University of South Dakota basketball teams went to Cuba in an effort to re-open bilateral relations in 1977, followed three years later by a team from Trinity College (Connecticut). Those were the first American sports teams to go to Cuba since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Other athletic exchanges were few and far between in the next three decades. “It was always very, very difficult to get permission for U.S. athletes to travel to Cuba for competitions, and it was equally difficult, although not quite as difficult, to get visas for Cubans to compete here,” says Stephen Bull, one of the organizers of the Chinese ping-pong team’s visit to the U.S. and former government relations director for the International Olympic Committee. The ice started to melt under the Obama administration even before the recent relaxation of Treasury rules. In November 2009, the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association played the Old Time Senior Softball Tournament in Havana. Next January, Grand Valley State University is scheduled to take its baseball team there.

Not all sports-related visa requests have gone smoothly, however. In March, the U.S. denied the U.S. badminton team visas to travel to Cuba to participate in an international tournament.

Nevertheless, the White House is clearly betting that amateur and professional baseball exchanges will help break down decades of distrust and isolation between Cuban and U.S. citizens—much as the so-called ping-pong diplomacy did with China. The Chinese-American exchanges of table tennis teams in the early 1970s paved the way for the historic meeting between President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedung in Beijing in 1972.

Could the growing Cuban-U.S. sports rapprochement lead to a similar thaw between Havana and Washington?

Andres Schipani is the Miami reporter for the Financial Times.