By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — Sports have been made a top priority since relations between Cuba and the United States began to be re-established, after more than fifty years of conflict.
As part of a phenomenon that extends beyond the political and touches other areas of society, the sports sector reacted quickly and US professional clubs began to express their interest in hiring Cuban baseball players only hours after that historical announcement. That has not yet happened and we may still have to wait quite a bit to see that step taken, but sports have undeniably, timidly started down the road of normalization.
The unquestionable prestige Cuba has earned for itself in sports gives the island added appeal, among managers, athletes and aficionados alike. The NBA has already broken the ice by sending over recently retired stars, like Canadian Steve Nash, Congolese Dikembe Mutombo and Portuguese Patrica “Ticha” Penicheiro, along with a number of trainers.
This first step was very well received by sports authorities in the two countries, as well as by Cuban fans, who gave the basketball players a warm welcome and showed them their sincere gratitude at neighborhood courts.
It seems the goals are to follow the dunks, as New York’s Cosmos, led by Spanish forward Raul Gonzalez, are scheduled to become the first professional soccer team to visit the island on June 2nd.
Baseball, the passion of Cubans and Americans alike, could be next on the list, as the Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred appears confident the Big Leagues will be holding exhibition games in Cuba during the 2016 MLB spring training.
For the time being, Cubans cannot access elite sports in the United States on an equal footing owing to federal laws that forbid them from taking that step while still residing in Cuba – but that could change soon. That change could be the pivotal turn that will allow us to say that the normalization of relations between the two political enemies has become effective in the world of sports.
Zaida, an employee at Cuba’s telecommunications company, believes the time has come to fulfill the wishes of the majority of Cubans. “It’s not just baseball players, who’ve said it more than once, people in general want to see them play among the world’s best. Those who’ve left recently have demonstrated the kind of talent we have in our country, and not all of them were stars here in Cuba.”
“I loved what happened with basketball,” Frank opines, “because they didn’t just leave it at an official visit to the Fajardo (the venue of Cuba’s sports institute). They went to a neighborhood court on 23 and B streets, where the kids plays, and they set up a clinic and left balls and modern hoops and backboards. The same thing will probably happen when the Cosmos come over. We need exchanges like that here, because the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER) proved long ago that it can’t handle everything on its own. The money that comes in through contracts is destined to other sectors and isn’t used to improve sports at the grassroots level, which is where champions come from.”
“They set up new backboards at 23 and B,” Lander says, “but they left the old ones on the ground. You can almost be sure that, when this whole thing blows over, they’ll take down the good ones and put up the ones they had before. As I understand it, several Cuban baseball players have wanted to open up academies here, at their own expense, to train new generations of players, and they’ve told them they can’t. That’s another way of halting development.”
“They need to reach an agreement once and for all,” Tony adds. “Cuba was always the top Major Leagues talent market and, with all of its problems, it’s basically at that point now. Then, our players could head on over to the United States to play, those that get contracts. The same thing could happen in other sports. They have fairly good soccer teams in the United States, and we don’t even have good fields here. I don’t know what they’re going to do when the Cosmos come. Can you imagine Raul trying to guess where they’re going to pass him the ball from? The field at the Pedro Marrero stadium is so uneven that, once the ball hits the ground, you don’t know where it’s going to bounce to, or how high.”
“There were plans to restore that field and make a synthetic one, but they haven’t done it yet,” Abilio remakrs. “It seems to me the money is being used for other things. From what I’ve read, the commissioner stays at all-inclusive hotels when he heads down to the provinces to follow the Cuban soccer league games.”
“I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Diony interjects, “but it’s clear we need to continue getting closer to the outside world, burst the bubble we’re in once and for all, where everyone looks at us like we are aliens. We’ve seen important steps and I hope things continue this way, to see if we can rescue Cuban sports from the crisis brought on by athletes leaving, something that’s affecting nearly all sports. If the US market opens up to Cubans, players won’t have to work under the table, and we will finally be able to have a stable volleyball selection, for instance.”
“The thing is, everything is done slowly here,” Manuel says. “The talks started in December and the Office hasn’t yet been opened. We’re no longer on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, but we continue to see very slow changes. It seems they want them to remove the blockade once and for all for them to remove all obstacles.”
“This isn’t new,” David remarks. “You should’ve gotten used to being patient already. Just look at how slow contracts are coming along, and how desperate the athletes are. What we need is for everything to be fixed, sooner or later.”
The truth is that the light at the end of the tunnel is still too faint and history forces us to ration our optimism, as everything could well go back to square one. Let’s hope not.