The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Cuba tried to save its baseball team. Its efforts had unintended consequences.

A protester against the Cuban government runs on the field during the 2023 World Baseball Classic game between the United States and Cuba in Miami on March 19. (Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Cuba is a country in crisis. Poverty is widespread, wages are stagnant, unofficial unemployment figures are high and food costs are rising. But with its citizens leaving at historic rates on rafts or by crossing dangerous Central American jungles, and with more than 1,000 political prisoners in its jails, the Cuban regime has decided to try to save … baseball.

After more than a decade of flaming out in international competitions, and with the 2023 World Baseball Classic earlier this month, the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel allowed players currently playing in the United States and in other foreign professional leagues to return to the national team, revoking a ban that had been in place for more than six decades.

By law, Cuban athletes who are not associated with Cuban sports federations — that is, those who developed their careers abroad without government sponsorship — cannot play on national teams. But, determined to keep the public’s spirits up in difficult times, the regime dropped its ideological intransigence and welcomed those whom it had denounced for decades as “sellouts” or “traitors.”

The measure was met with skepticism and some hostility by sectors of the Cuban exile community. They pointed out that the doors of the team were not open to all baseball players. Several had not been called up due to their outspoken stances against the government, or for having escaped from official delegations during visits abroad.

Other players refused to be part of the team, arguing that it was impossible for them to wear the national jersey again if it meant representing an oppressive regime. Only a few Cuban stars from the MLB took the government up on its offer. Luis Robert Jr. and Yoán Moncada from the Chicago White Sox joined up, while greats such as José Abreu from the Houston Astros, Yuli Gurriel from the Miami Marlins and Aroldis Chapman from the Kansas City Royals, among others, held back.

The “traitors” who did return to the team played in Taiwan and Japan, where the World Classic qualifying phase took place. They did not, however, travel to the pretournament training in Havana, where the team met with Díaz-Canel. The meeting was denounced by Cuban exiles as mere show, aimed at selling a symbolic “opening” that in reality had no substance.

Even with the injection of talent, the national team looked weak in the early games. The Cubans suffered two consecutive defeats, in which the talent-delta between the major league players and those playing in Cuba and other professional leagues became very apparent. But the Cuban squad recovered in time, managing to make it to the semifinals, something it had not been able to do since 2006.

The semis were played in Miami, the beating heart of the Cuban exile community. And, adding another layer of symbolism, the opponent in Miami was the United States’ national team. Before the game, the surroundings of LoanDepot Park were filled with Cuban exiles protesting the regime and demanding the release of Cuban political prisoners and the end of the dictatorship. To avoid confrontations inside the stadium, the organizers prohibited fans from bringing in signs with political content. The prohibition did not work. Once the game started, the stands were filled with placards. Three times during the game, Cuban exiles stormed the field carrying signs protesting the regime.

The event perfectly encapsulated the broader Cuban world today. The nation is in trouble, the people are divided, the government is trying to maneuver to save face and its team lost on the field. But while many of the most outspoken in the exile community wanted Cuba to lose, wore U.S. jerseys and waved the American flag, many others cheered for the Cuban team and wore its colors. There was a palpable desire among many Cubans to recover a common sense of unity that had long been out of reach.

Despite losing the game, the Cuban squad became a potent symbol transcending any attempts at political manipulation. The regime turned to the exile community to save its national enterprise, and as a result it succeeded in creating something that represented all Cubans in ways that it clearly did not anticipate.

The episode is ultimately a hopeful one. A struggling team came to represent a fragmented country seeking to reunite. As the message on the back of a fan’s shirt in the stands of LoanDepot Park said: “I’m free, Mom. But I miss you.”