As with most historic announcements, the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba has fueled mostly a wait and see response. Most reports say that it’s unclear how this will impact the Cuban economy and the Cuban people.
But leaving politics aside, there is one factor that could potentially unify the nations and even end the embargo. And call me crazy when I say this, but it involves sport. Fidel Castro’s favorite sport, for that matter – béisbol.
Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, who helped place Castro in power, was reported to have once said that Cuba would never truly be united with the rest of Latin America until it learned how to play soccer like everybody else. That’s because Cuba is teeming with baseball fever, and has been for almost a century. The sport is one of the few vestiges of American imperialism that the Castros permitted to remain on the island.
Here is my basic premise, and I think even a cynic would agree: what’s going to drive change in policy is capital. And organized sport brings in capital – lots of it. We may not see the typical American business lobby for the embargo to be lifted. However, baseball is not a typical business, as was clearly established by the Supreme Court in 1922. It has some more flexibility. And while MLB isn’t going to be meddling in U.S. foreign policy, the national pastime of both nations is going to foment a new ideology of shared opportunity.
Baseball’s reputation in Cuba is healthier even than it is in the U.S. It’s an obsession. It is their version of the “beautiful game,” like soccer is in Brazil. As such, it has the potential to heal.
Sport has always led the way to normalization. Baseball was one of the first organizations in the U.S. to integrate, allowing black athletes to play alongside whites. In the aftermath of conflicts such as World War II, it was soccer in Europe and baseball in the U.S. that helped society recover from the bloodshed. Revisionist history will question whether the motives of those making decisions back then were pure, or motivated by money. Perhaps it was both.
If MLB were to enter Cuba, and players were able to freely come to the U.S. to sign contracts with franchises here, the possibilities of talent and profit would be endless. Caution must be taken to develop an economic model that would improve upon the one in the Dominican Republic, where the nation benefits little from the extraction of its talent. But if it were to be designed in a mutually beneficial manner, rest assured that the success would prompt other businesses to follow suit. And when that happens, the relations between the U.S. and Cuba will be as warm as the Caribbean Sun.
Just imagine this scenario: Game 7 of the World Series featuring the Havana Rays hosting the Washington Nationals in the Estadio Latinoamericano with Cuban and American flags draped alongside each other. It’s hard to think of something more unifying than that.