'Baseball diplomacy' reaches Cuba

IT WAS an American invasion of Cuba but not the one Fidel Castro had always warned of; the weapons were guitars, drums and baseball bats.

Whether you were into Bonnie Raitt or Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Buffett or James Taylor, or if you loved top-flight baseball, the place to be yesterday was Havana, Cuba. That's if you could get a visa from one of the world's most restrictive countries and if you were careful not to criticise Fidel Castro.

Under the latest anti-dissidence law, even criticising the Cuban leader's beard could win you a free 20-year stay in a stone-floored room with a hole in the floor for a lavatory. And, of course, neither foreign tourists nor Cubans had a chance to attend yesterday's big baseball game between the US major league's Baltimore Orioles and a Cuban national selection, or a joint concert by Cuban and American stars in the evening. Both events were invitation-only, with the tickets going to members of the Communist Party and related organisations.

Still, it was pop music diplomacy mixed with baseball diplomacy as American musicians and ball players sought to bridge the ideological gap between the US and the Communist Caribbean island only 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

But not everyone was in a party mood. The American invasion split Cuba-lovers down the middle over the old dilemma: is Mr Castro's regime more likely to end through economic blockade or through democratic penetration?

Miami-based Cuban exiles who fled Castro's regime were up in arms over the weekend festivities, calling the American musicians and sportsmen "traitors" and saying their visit would provide more oxygen to sustain the Communist leader's struggling regime. The exiles are also angry with the Washington administration for allowing the musicians and the Baltimore Orioles to visit Cuba despite a general US ban on Americans travelling to the island.

"It's wrong for the same reasons Jews would think it wrong to send the Baltimore Orioles over to Germany to entertain Hitler," wrote the Miami Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard. "Castro doesn't use gas ovens. He has used firing squads and political prisons and Communist evil, strangling the land of my parents for four decades."

A US embargo has been imposed on Cuba since the days of the Kennedy-Kruschev missile crisis in the early Sixties. It was tightened in 1996 after Cuban Mig fighter planes shot down two American light aircraft, killing four Americans of Cuban origin, over the Florida straits.

This year, however, President Bill Clinton has decided to encourage more human contact with the island in the hope that this will familiarise the people of Cuba with the idea of democracy and thereby isolate Castro.

That is why 700 American students were given permission to visit the island last month and had a ball with their local counterparts, and it was also the thinking behind yesterday's concert and baseball game.

But anti-Castro critics saw the whole thing as sick. While Alan Roy Scott, founder of the Music Bridge Around The World programme, which organised the musicians' trips, said: "I'm just here to make music," the critics noted that four Cuban dissidents who said publicly that they just wanted to make democracy, had been jailed this month for up to five years. Earlier this year Mr Castro announced a tough anti-dissidence law with sentences of up to 20 years, which apparently included foreigners.

The four dissidents were charged with sedition. Their crime? Holding a press conference to suggest that Castro might at least consider doubling the current number of parties in Cuba to two.

And several baseball fans and US major league teams were critical of the Orioles' visit. Sceptics said that the Orioles' owner, Peter Angelos, wanted to sign up Cuban players - who are generally considered to be of above-average ability in the US.

The Cuban national side is to travel to Baltimore in May. The question being asked in Havana yesterday was: "How many of them will come back?"

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