Accompanied by President Barack Obama, the Tampa Bay Rays recently traveled to Cuba to play against the Cuban national team. According to ESPN, it is only the second time a Major League Baseball team has traveled to Cuba since 1959. The visit is being hailed as a victory for “baseball diplomacy” between the nations.
American media outlets have praised Cuban officials for opening the country’s doors to MLB, and the Obama administration expressed optimism about baseball forming a connection between the two different countries. Some critics, however, believe that this baseball game symbolically erases the violent and turbulent historical relationship between the United States and Cuba.
Sports journalist Dan Le Batard—the son of Cuban refugees—wrote an poignant editorial for ESPN about how the optimism surrounding the recent game disrespects the experiences of Cuban citizens and refugees under Cuba’s communist regime. Le Batard describes the hardships his parents endured in Cuba before their difficult exile to the U.S. and how his community is not moved by the attempts to reconcile with Cuba’s harmful dictator. The oppressed individuals who fled Cuba years ago hoped major changes would be made in a more significant and proactive form than a baseball game.
In addition to the U.S., the Cuban government sees this game as a win. Baseball is a beloved pastime in the country akin to America’s love of football. The positive reaction to the game does just what Le Batard condemns: legitimizing the continuation of Raul Castro’s regime. The game may be described as “putting differences aside,” but that is not enough in the face of brutal history and its ongoing legacy.
The U.S. and MLB have their own history of causing tension in Caribbean and Latin American countries. The lavish training academies in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries often exploit young players with dreams of playing on MLB teams. Without proper education to fall back on, players who don’t make the cut often struggle to find other work in their native countries.
It isn’t a surprise that “baseball diplomacy” is marketed as a way to reconcile an unstable relationship between the U.S. and Cuba when surveying MLB’s relationships with other countries. Hopefully, more figures will recognize the symbolic meaning of the Tampa Bay Rays game and be open to hold a real conversation about Cuba’s history.