By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006
The Treasury Department granted a license yesterday that will allow Cuba to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March, helping Major League Baseball avoid a crisis that baseball officials said could have derailed the much-hyped event.
The approval came after tournament officials reworked the license application to satisfy the Bush administration's demands that the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro not benefit financially from the tournament, as dictated by the U.S. government's 45-year-old economic sanctions against the island nation.
"The president wanted to see it resolved in a positive way," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in an e-mail. "Our concerns were centered on making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime, and that the World Baseball Classic not be misused by the regime for spying. We believe the concerns have been addressed."
The 16-nation tournament, which Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig has called "the most important international baseball event ever staged," will now go on as planned, with first-round games beginning March 3 in Tokyo, one of four first-round sites. Cuba, considered the dominant international team and the winner of three of the last four Olympic gold medals, will open March 7 in San Juan. The other first-round sites are Phoenix and Orlando; the finals will take place March 20 in San Diego.
"The federal government thoughtfully and diligently helped us bring the application process to a successful conclusion," Selig said in a statement released through the league, which is staging the tournament with the MLB Players Association. The tournament first applied for a license for Cuba in late November, but the application was denied by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control because Cuba would have received proceeds from the event. After Cuba agreed to donate proceeds to Hurricane Katrina relief, the tournament reapplied on Dec. 22.
Had the administration denied Cuba's entry, it likely would have set off a chain of events resulting in the tournament's cancellation. The International Baseball Federation, the sport's governing body, said it would have revoked its official sanction of the event if Cuba were excluded, which would have led other nations to pull out.
Instead, the decision to grant the license was viewed by some as an indication that Bush's ties to baseball -- he was managing partner of the Texas Rangers before running for governor of Texas and at one time was widely viewed as a candidate for baseball commissioner -- remain strong, even in the face of opposition from anti-Castro Republicans in Florida.
"Anti-Castro groups still have a lot of clout with the White House," said policy analyst Daniel P. Erickson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, "and they simply overreached by trying to take on Major League Baseball."
Administration officials stressed that the decision did not represent a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, pointing out that approval of the license came only after changes were made in the second application to satisfy the administration's demands.
Despite the approval of Cuba's license, their players must still go through the visa process, according to State Department spokesman Eric Watnik. "It doesn't mean that all the team's players are now certain of being allowed into the United States," he said. "They've gotten through one part of the process and are now entering another, separate part. Whether [the players] can all get visas is still up in the air."
Watnik added that he did not mean to imply any visas would be denied because the players were representing Cuba. Each applicant, he said, would be judged individually. He noted that about 20,000 visas a year are granted to Cuban citizens to visit the United States.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who lobbied the administration to deny Cuba's license, criticized yesterday's decision as permitting "the Cuban totalitarian regime to utilize a sporting event for propaganda purposes while Castro's security agents keep a watchful eye on the Cuban players to prevent their escape to freedom."
Cuba has never played against a full squad of major leaguers in international tournament play, but split a pair of exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999 -- losing in Havana, but winning in Baltimore. Although they won Olympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2004, the Cubans will be facing much stiffer competition in March, with the United States, Dominican Republic and Venezuelan teams in particular stacked with major league talent.
"The fact they're going to be playing full teams of major leaguers for the first time is going to be interesting," said Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball. "They will bring their absolute best team. We play them all the time [in international competition], and they show up to win."
Staff writers Bradley Graham and Peter Baker contributed to this report.