Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Baseball Diplomacy: The American President and Cuban Relations


March 22, 2016 – the world will remember this as a date that marked the play of a game between two old Cold War enemies. Why would something as simple as an international athletic competition be a significant political landmark? 
The answer is that both the United States and Cuba share a passion and an undying love for baseball, a sport capable of improving human relations. This contest in 2016 symbolized a hope for sweeping change and forgiveness between these neighboring nations.
This landmark exhibition baseball game at Estadio Latinoamericano in the Cuban capital of Havana between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team not only represented the first time a Major League team has played on the communist-ruled island since 1999, but also marked the first time an American leader visited Cuba while in office since "Silent" Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

No matter your views on issues between the United States and Cuba – the economic embargo, human rights violations, Guantanamo – you must recognize that these sincere attempts at diplomacy are important stepping stones to ironing out key understandings.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has sought to refocus U.S. foreign policy on regions like Latin America that have received less attention than the turmoil in the Middle East and the terrorism emanating from the region.

The White House hopes that restoring ties with Cuba will benefit U.S. relations with other countries in Latin America, which have long bristled at Washington's freeze with Havana.

Enter the common ground of baseball ...

As a recognition of "good will" between two nations and a sign of progress. President
Obama pointed to baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who broke barriers in the U.S. as one of the first African-American Major League Baseball players, as one example of "the power of sports" to bring change. 
"It can change attitudes sometimes in ways that a politician can never change, that a speech can’t change," Obama said. "All of those kids who started growing up watching the Brooklyn Dodgers, suddenly they’re rooting for a black man on the field and how that affects their attitudes laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement that’s a legacy that all of us have benefited from, black and white and Latino and Asian."

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser added …

"Baseball is obviously something that the United States and the Cuban people share a common love of and it's a part of both of our heritages, and frankly, also part of the type of exchanges that we are pursuing in business, in culture, in the arts, in sports that can bring the American and Cuban people closer together.”

(Patrick Oppmann. “Obama engages in baseball diplomacy in Cuba.” 
CNN. March 22, 2016.)

This is a sentiment echoed by Major League Commissioner Robert Manfred. He explained ...

"During a time of historic change, we appreciate the constructive role afforded by our shared passion for the game, and we look forward to experiencing Cuba's storied baseball tradition and the passion of its many loyal fans.”

(Mike Axisa. “President Obama to attend Rays-Cuba exhibition game in Havana.” 
CBS Sports. March 02, 2016.)


The President's long-planned attendance at the game was unfortunately full of public controversy due to a tragic terrorist attack in Belgium that morning. The President was criticized by opponents who believed he should have left Cuba because of attacks in Brussels. It presented a dilemma for President Obama.
Of course, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were two of the loudest critics of the president for continuing his trip to Cuba in the wake of the attacks in Brussels, calling on the president to suspend his trip and return home to the United States or travel to Belgium’s capital. 
Trump was quoted in The Hill as saying: “Obama looked 'ridiculous' speaking in Cuba while the situation in Brussels unfolded. And, CBS2’s Kristine Johnson reported Trump took to Twitter on March 21, 2016 to call out President Barack Obama for attending a baseball game in Cuba. Trump tweeted ...

Pres. Obama should leave the baseball game in Cuba immediately & get home to Washington- where a #POTUS, under a serious emergency belongs!”

(Kristine Johnson. “Ted Cruz: ‘We Need To Empower Law Enforcement To PatrolAnd Secure Muslim Neighborhoods Before They Become Radicalized.’” CBS New York. March 22, 2016.)

Like Trump, Cruz condemned Obama at a news conference on Capitol Hill ...

"President Obama is spending his time going to baseball games with the Castros. He should be back in America keeping this country safe. Or President Obama should be planning to travel to Brussels."
(Jordyn Phelps. “President Obama Explains Why He Attended MLB Exhibition Game in Cuba Despite Brussels Attacks.” ABC News. March 22, 2016.)

Juliet Spies-Gans of the Huffington Post said this of President Obama's decision to attend the game despite the developments in Brussels:

His reasoning had to do with fear. And with fortitude. And with refusing to cower in the face of a bully — refusing to let groups like the Islamic State dictate the rhythm and actions of the rest of the world.”

(Juliet Spies-Gans. Obama Explains Why He Attended A Ballgame Just Hours After The Brussels Attacks.” Huffington Post. March 22, 2016.)

In a live mid-game interview with ESPN, President Obama explained his decision to attend the game in Cuba in the following statement:

"It's always a challenge when you have a terrorist attack anywhere in the world. You want to be respectful and understand the gravity of the situation. But, the whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people's ordinary lives."

Obama continued to explain his position …
They (terrorists) cannot defeat America, they don’t produce anything, they don’t have a message that appeals to the vast majority of Muslims or the vast majority of people around the world. What they can do is scare. And make people afraid. And disrupt our daily lives and divide us. And as long as we don’t allow that to happen, we’re going to be OK.” 
Before the game began, the two leaders stood and bowed their heads for a minute's silence to honor the victims of the attacks in Brussels, which left at least 34 people dead. 

My Take

Obama is the first U.S. president in 88 years to visit Cuba. I watched my television as President Obama, his wife Michelle, and his daughter Malia joined Cuban President Raul Castro at the game Tuesday. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation, competition, and more than a little fear. 
After all, the President and his family visited Cuba at great risk – physical risks to him and to his family, political risks to his popularity, and personal risks to his legacy. I believe he handled the trip exceptionally well and served as the epitome of a strong American president. I also believe my making the decision to stay in Cuba he made a stoic stand against terrorism. In fact, he was standing with Americans – the Tampa Bay Rays – and just 90 or so miles from American soil.

In my view, President Obama deserves the respect and gratitude of the American people.I praise both President Obama and President Castro for their courage and for their willingness to enter into historic discussions. The meeting was a memorable, historic event that will hopefully open doors for normalization and improved human rights.

To me …

The crown jewel of the trip was the solidarity between the two former enemies at the baseball game. And, I do not say this without recognizing other very important parts of the visit such as the President's meeting with Cuban dissidents. All of this was made possible by the normalization of U.S. and Cuban relations 15 months ago. Again, thanks to President Obama.

On the diamond this March 22, Americans and Cubans proved that baseball can represent much more than a game between two teams. The fellowship, sportsmanship, and good will displayed on the field and in the bleachers formed a bright vision of international relations. Baseball, once again, showed us that old adversaries can work on becoming new friends despite deep differences. Anyone who loves the game, no matter where they live, understands this respectful relationship among players and fans, and the "kid" in all of us knows the power of baseball to inspire new dreams.

The Game I Love
by John McCluskey©
Published: The Ridgefield Press (2002)
The days I miss of the game I love,
early Spring, my Mazeroski glove,

my baseball cards, clothespins, spokes;
on Saturdays, I'd tell my folks

that afternoons I must be gone;
I'd race to where the Kelly's lawn

met the endless St Jude's field,
where heavy lumber kids would wield,

where muddy balls were tossed around
and mitts were left upon the ground

when innings changed, so we could share
(there weren't enough for all out there).

But we played those days with all our might
til calls to dinner brought the night

(in summer, though, we might return
with bellies full, more fuel to burn).

Baseball then was everything -
you played it, watched it, had cards to bring

down the street to show your friends,
to trade your doubles, though it depends

upon the cards your buddies had
and their condition: good or bad.

Some trades you made, improved your stack,
those yesterdays that won't be back.

My springtime heart's forever full of
the days I miss of the game I love

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