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Cuba to play World Baseball Classic game in Miami

MIAMI — This is the most Cuban region of the United States.

It is estimated that more than 1.2 million people of Cuban descent reside in the greater Miami area. With that, however, comes a long and complex history: the city has been largely remade over the past six decades by Cuban exiles who fled the communist government on the neighboring Caribbean island. The region is an epicenter of anti-Castro activism and is where, in the past, artists sympathetic to the Cuban government have been protested or banned.

This convoluted story is what adds intrigue and significance to Sunday’s proceedings when the Cuban national baseball team makes what is believed to be its first trip to Miami since the communist revolution of 1959. once-mighty team, which faded as its top players left for the United States, advanced through the group stage of the World Baseball Classic in Taiwan and shocked the international baseball world by winning a game of quarter-final in Japan. This qualified the team for the semi-finals of the quadrennial tournament, where they will face the winner of a quarter-final match between the United States and Venezuela.

The stadium hosting the championship rounds of the tournament: LoanDepot Park in the Miami neighborhood known as Little Havana.

“In Miami, symbolism is very powerful,” said Andy Gomez, a retired professor of Cuban studies at the University of Miami. “For both parties.”

The presence of the Cuban team, seen not only as a symbol of the country’s most popular sport but also as a government propaganda tool, is expected to stir mixed emotions in the South Florida community.

“I’m here for sport, not for politics,” Josuet Martinez, 48, a Cuban and baseball fan, said in Spanish. “We are going to play sports.”

Martinez said this Friday as he stood with his brother inside the Westland Mall in Hialeah, a city with a large Cuban population in Miami-Dade County. Martinez was at a Lids store in the mall with the Cuban team logo stitched onto a blue hat because the store didn’t have any of the team’s official hats in stock.

He said he left his company and his country seven months ago to come to the United States for better economic opportunities. He hopes that the Cuban team will win on Sunday, but also hopes that the opponent will be Venezuela because he does not want to choose between his native country and his current home.

“In Miami there are a lot of Cubans, so I imagine there will be a lot of fans,” Martinez said.

Others are not so sure. Armando Lopez, 68, lives near the stadium, home of the Miami Marlins, but said he had no plans to attend the game. When he lived in Cuba, he was a fan of the national team. But after he left for the United States in 1980, he says, he began “to evolve and realize the manipulation of sports teams”.

“It’s not that as a Cuban you don’t like a team from Cuba,” he said in Spanish. “You sympathize with a team from your country. But the problem is indoctrination. He added that players, many of whom have chosen not to leave the Cuban team in favor of MLB, where they could earn millions, should “come here to play and come and see how different it is here by compared to over there, that people live here. freely. »

The contrasting views were emblematic of a changing atmosphere among Cubans in South Florida. Older generations fled for ideological reasons, while younger waves left for economic reasons. Large demonstrations by Cuban artists have been more frequent in recent decades. The children and grandchildren of Cuban immigrants became interested in visiting the island.

And there has been some normalization of relations between countries, sometimes thanks to baseball. On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team in Havana, with President Barack Obama seated next to President Raúl Castro of Cuba. In 2018, MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached an agreement to allow players to compete in the United States without defecting – but the Trump administration later rescinded it, saying it was a violation of trade laws because that the Cuban federation was part of the Havana government.

“You can’t put the whole Cuban-American community in one group,” said Gomez, who came to the United States as a child and is now 68. For example, he said, some Cubans of his generation suffer from what he called Cuba. fatigue, as they waited for the big moment of change, but it didn’t happen, even after Fidel Castro’s death in 2016. And for people of his daughter’s generation, he said said, the subject of Cuba is somewhat irrelevant because it is not part of their daily life.

“I think there will be mixed emotions across the board,” Gomez said, adding that he plans to cheer on the Cuban flag during Sunday’s game but will also be cheering on the United States team. United if it was in the game. . “These wounds are going to reopen and bring back bad memories for a lot of people. I think it will bring out a certain level of madness in some other groups who are considering protesting.

Miguel Saavedra, president of the Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa, said his organization was planning outside the stadium and in other areas around Little Havana over the weekend. He said Friday he didn’t know how many people would attend.

“For them it’s a symbol,” he said in Spanish, referring to the Cuban government and the baseball team. “For us, this is something that we must condemn. Everything that comes from the regime in Cuba is reprehensible.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Cuban president, supported the national team, saying goodbye to the players in person before they left for training ahead of the WBC On social media, he donned the team’s hat and shared posts about them.

Some politicians in the United States have spoken out against gambling.

“It is the greatest disrespect to the entire Cuban community in exile that this team is here,” Esteban Bovo, the Republican mayor of Hialeah, said in a statement. “I am outraged and I stand with the families of political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the regime’s prisons without being able to see their families. I stand with the opposition and all those who peacefully express their opinion about the game of baseball.

The Cuban federation did not respond to messages seeking comment. But Cuba manager Armando Johnson told official government media that the team had spoken to the players about what to expect in Miami.

“They know that we are going to play in a room where unfortunately we will face provocations,” he said in Spanish. “But in this sense, we are also ready to prevent these maneuvers from achieving their objectives, and we are convinced that we will also find support. This spirit that drives us is that of baseball, and with this conviction, we will prove ourselves on the field, always looking for more, so that’s where the last word is said.

Tighter security at the stadium is expected ahead of Sunday’s game. Fans can express themselves – for example with music, boos or flags – but there have been limits at all tournaments on signage. According to LoanDepot Park rules, guests may not enter the stadium with any banners larger than 3 feet by 5 feet or signs with “foul language or disrespectful statements” or “statements regarding political affiliation, social and economic issues or other statements that infringe on civil liberties”. As of Saturday morning, tickets were available for as little as $100 on the secondary market.

The Cuban national team has already been to Florida. In June 2021, he played in an Olympic qualifying tournament in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie, but went 1-2 and failed to earn a spot at the Summer Games. There were some demonstrations outside the stadiums.

Even to compete in the WBC, the Cuban team needed special permission from the United States government because of its sanctions, which prohibit doing business with Cuba. After consultation with the State Department, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the country’s trade sanctions, issued specific licenses to allow for the inclusion of Cuba and the “voluntary participation of certain players from baseball of Cuban descent”, including those who play on MLB teams. said a Treasury spokesman.

But unlike other countries, the Cuban federation and its players cannot receive any income or prize money from the WBC under the licenses, the spokesperson said.

We didn’t expect Cuba to go this far in the tournament. The country has won three Olympic golds and two silvers in the six Summer Games featuring baseball. It was also the 2006 inaugural WBC runner-up. But as more players defected to play in MLB, the team struggled internationally. He did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and has not reached a WBC semi-final since that first tournament.

After pressure from defecting Cuban players trying to form their own WBC team, the Cuban federation changed its position. For the first time, it allowed defaulting players to represent him in this WBC – but only some accepted and others weren’t invited or rejected the offer.

To get this far in the tournament, Cuba finished 2-2 in Pool A in Taiwan and qualified as the first seed in that group. In a quarter-final game Wednesday in Japan, he beat Australia 4-3 and then flew to South Florida.

On Friday, the team practiced at MLB’s Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, about two hours north of Miami. And on Saturday morning, the team will train at LoanDepot Park, hours before the United States and Venezuela face off on the same ground.

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