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Emotions run high as the Cuban national baseball team visits Miami


MIAMI – Until Sunday, the Cuban national baseball team had not played here since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

The island’s signature team has played in the United States for decades, but not in this American center of the Cuban diaspora, a city reformed by Cubans fleeing political and economic repression. More than 750,000 Cuban-born people live in the Miami area, according to a recent census. Hundreds of thousands claim Cuban heritage.

So Sunday’s World Baseball Classic semifinal between the underdog Cuban team and the mighty U.S. team seemed less like a historic baseball game than a historic event. It was, in some ways, a contentious showdown in the fifth iteration of a tournament that never reached the level of notoriety needed to spark political tension.

But within hours of Cuba qualifying for Sunday’s semifinals at LoanDepot Park in Little Havana, calls to protest the team’s presence spread on social media. Rapper El Funky, famous for the protest song “Patria y Vida,” posted an Instagram video asking Cubans to speak out. Prominent YouTuber Alex Otaola, an outspoken critic of the Cuban government, did the same. So did SOS Cuba, a group that defends human rights on the island.

Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. issued a statement calling the presence of the Cuban team “of the greatest disrespect to the entire Cuban exile community that this team is here.”

“I am outraged and stand with the families of the political prisoners who are currently being tortured in regime 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,” said Bovo. “We cannot tolerate regime agents enjoying the freedoms of this country while the Cuban people are in dire need and subjected to abuse and oppression by the regime’s cowards.”

MLB officials had braced for protest outside the stadium, recognizing the possibility that activists might try to buy seats in visible locations to place protest signs where the world would see them. Extra security followed the Cuban team to training on Saturday and back to the stadium on Sunday.

But in the relatively quiet hours before the game, the variety of perspectives of Cuban fans inside and outside the stadium was on display, and the nuance of sentiment towards the national team was evident. American star Nolan Arenado, whose father grew up in Cuba, said: “There are a lot of anxious feelings.”

As the Cuban team went into batting practice on Sunday afternoon, fans clung to the right field wall with Cuban flags and jerseys, hoping for high-fives, baseballs or autographs. Cuban jerseys outnumbered American jerseys on fans outside the stadium. Some fans wore Cuban flags draped around their shoulders. Some had written “Patria y vida,” the protest slogan that translates to “fatherland and life” – an inversion of the revolutionary slogan “Patria o muerte” or “fatherland or death” – in the white lines of those flags. Others carried placards that read “Down with the dictatorship” or chanted “Freedom for Cuba!”

Manager Armando Johnson, who answered questions about the team’s meeting with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Saturday before leaving for the tournament, spent the moments before his team’s biggest game in recent memory answering questions about what was beyond the stadium could take place.

“We don’t think about what they say there or about possible aggression,” Johnson said, a message echoed by his players in multiple interviews since arriving in Miami.

“It doesn’t affect us. [At] events, you have fans who support you and fans against you. That’s normal in baseball,” said Alfredo Despaigne, an experienced hitter from Cuba who has played professionally in Japan for many years. “… Everyone is free to feel and think what he wants. It won’t hit us.”

But in practice, those differences of opinion have already affected the team enormously.

For the first time, the United States granted a license to the Cuban Baseball Federation allowing top league players to represent their country in the World Baseball Classic. On paper, the way was clear for stars like José Abreu, Yordan Alvarez, the Gurriel brothers and others to restore Cuba’s status as a title contender.

The Cuban government touted their participation as a positive sign for Cuba, suggesting that the country was opening its guns to players who had to defect to make a living in the majors – the same players the government often branded traitors when they left.

The Cubans had long been an international juggernaut, even with no stars leaving to pursue more lucrative professional careers in the United States. Cuba won three of the first four Olympic gold medals awarded in baseball. It reached the finals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, while discouraging its stars from leaving for the United States and denouncing those who did.

Slowly but surely, Cuba’s restrictions on professional sports forced more and more talented players to defect. Some of the tournament’s biggest stars, like Mexico standout Randy Arozarena, have adopted new homelands.

Other expatriates, including a group of Cuban players led by reliever Raisel Iglesias, organized the Association of Professional Cuban Baseball Players to give Cuban professionals abroad “a voice and representation in professional tournaments, exhibitions, and other international activities.”

From 2021: ‘Patria y Vida’ and more from the Latin Grammys

That group hoped to gain entry to the World Baseball Classic by representing Cubans abroad. But because it was not part of a national federation, and thus was not a member of the World Baseball Softball Confederation that regulates the international competition, it was not allowed to participate.

None of the players involved in that effort joined this Cuban national team. In fact, of the top Major Leaguers, only Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox agreed to do so. As a result, they have provoked mixed reactions.

This weekend, a reporter asked Moncada about “Patria y vida,” a slogan related to Cuban government protests in 2021 that resulted in a massive government crackdown on those calling for more rights and led to the banishment of a new generation of activists.

Moncada said he couldn’t answer the question: “I’m a baseball player; I have nothing to do with that.” Saturday, the clip circulated on social media, where activists expressed frustration that he not only agreed to represent Cuba, but despite his comfortable position in the major leagues, did not speak out against the government.

“This boy who has never raised his voice to say, ‘Stop crushing the Cuban people,’ this boy who has never raised his voice to say, ‘Free the political prisoners,'” Otaola said in a statement. video posted Friday of him advocating for fellow citizens. Cuban Americans refuse to support players, he says, not advocate for their compatriots.

“I am not a brother of accomplices,” he said. “I am a brother of victims.”

Moncada was in Cuba’s starting line-up on Sunday-evening, batting second and playing third base. He is a crucial, if somewhat controversial, member of a legendary, if always controversial, squad – one that was nevertheless one win away from advancing to the finals of the World Baseball Classic.

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