From the Stands: Baseball & Politics in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Cuban baseball fans.

HAVANA TIMES, April 23 —Cuban baseball’s “Golden” 50th Anniversary Championship Series begins on Saturday, and these are unprecedented finals.

Pinar del Rio will make an attempt to regain the title after thirteen years of coming up empty, and for the first time ever the squad from Ciego de Avila Province has become a contender for the crown .  People in the street are speculating and backing it up with bets on this year’s favorite teams.  And yes, even in Havana.

Residents of the capital have been slowly recuperating from the sidelining of the local Industriales team from the playoffs.  Bit by bit, they’ve begun making comments and even adopting teams, provisionally, though only for this final in which the Blues were left outside. The problem is that they have to “go with” someone.  They can’t stand around neutral in the face of a baseball series.

“I’m going with Pinar.  It’s better for another western team win than an eastern one,” said one friend of mine here.   This is the constant in our league.  It doesn’t matter what happens during the regular season, the finals will a competition between the West and East.  Year after year we perpetuate this rivalry and regionalism.

What a coincidence.  That same regionalism was one of the causes of the defeat of the Liberation Army in the Ten Years War (1868-1878) against the Spanish.

That couldn’t be happening now though.  After the 1959 revolution, we are all united.  This is a healthy light-hearted regionalism, though those from the West — especially Havanans — take advantage of games being played in their stadium to scream “Palestinians!” at the players and fans of the eastern teams.

But not everyone in the capital is behind the western Pinar del Rio squad.  I heard one baseball fan from here say, “Ciego has had a tremendous season and they deserve to win.”  Any argument is valid.  What’s important is to have a favorite, and if possible one that ends up winning.

You wish you could pick up the phone and call the manager

But do you know what’s really screwed up when you’re a true baseball fan?  It’s when you’re watching the game from the grandstands (or in front of the TV) and you can’t do anything when the manager of your favorite team decides to have the clean-up batter bunt or doesn’t bring in a pinch hitter in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and no outs and a rookie at the plate who’s already struck out three times.

Baseball fans in Central Park Havana. Foto: Caridad

In Guantanamo, people must still be wondering why the manager decided — in the last inning and with the game tied up with the home team from Granma — to pitch to a guy like Despaigne, such a reliable batter and with so much power at the plate.  What’s more, he was the one who had hit the homer that tied the game.

And what happens when Team Cuba plays in international events and even from here we can see that it’s necessary to change pitchers?  They make you want to phone the manager and tell him: “Compadre, you need to sit that man out.  Enough is enough.” How much I wouldn’t give to be able to do just that.  That can only be done by someone with lots of authority, even if they don’t know anything about baseball.

Eternal spectators

As for us, no matter how much we know we’re simple spectators.  We can only watch and accept the outcome.  This is also how we viewed the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) that just concluded.

We had our opportunity to play an active role during meetings to debate the guidelines of the PCC.  Ok, we weren’t part of the team that crafted them, but at least we had an opportunity to discuss them.

Cubans have had plenty to talk about at bus stops, in lines, on the job and at home.  On the one hand was the championship baseball series and on the other was the Sixth Congress of the PCC.  But no matter how much we like baseball, we know that the final result of the series won’t represent any significant change in our lives, not even in the lives of the residents of the province that turns out winning – beyond the emotion of the moment and some celebrations with kegs of beer and reggaeton.  It was in the congress where the future of the country was debated.

So who came out on top?

Scene from the VI Communist Party Congress. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños

Notwithstanding, the greater suspense was generated around the finals of the series and not with the congress.  People took the guidelines for changes in the economy as having been already approved, just as it was taken for granted that the new Central Committee and the new Politburo had already been decided on.  It’s now composed of the same old members, and a few new ones (very few), and the election of Raul Castro as the Party leader was hardly a surprise.

On Tuesday night I met with a friend who hadn’t been able to watch the closing session of the congress, therefore he didn’t know who was elected first secretary of the party.  He asked me, “Who came out on top – Raul or Fidel again?”

“Raul,” I said automatically.  Then I wondered: Was there any other possibility?  Weren’t there any other candidates for the position of first secretary of the PCC?  The interesting thing was that it hadn’t even occurred to me that another person could have been elected.

The last year I read an article in the Granma newspaper about our baseball league.  The author said that in baseball there’s a certain “dramaturgy,” a dramatic composition, just like in a movie or play.  But not only are there similarities, but also differences: in baseball that dramaturgy isn’t planned, that’s why we’re all surprised.

When only one team is on the field

The congress is like a ball game in which only one side is playing.  So at the top of the third inning you might already have a 10 run difference in favor of the one team.  Everything points to a super blowout.  The point is that the game loses its attraction.  That’s why you turn off the TV.  There’s only one team on the field, though you might sit there watching out of pure inertia, even though you know full well ahead of time who’s going to win.

Delegates at the 6th Communist Party of Cuba Congress. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

When the series finishes up there will be a western or an eastern champion.  The formula repeats itself to maintain a healthy rivalry.  Before and after the congress we had and we will have a single party, because the most important thing is unity.

It doesn’t matter that not all Cubans are represented by that single political party.  It doesn’t matter that not everybody is a communist or that not everybody is in agreement with the government.

At least now many women and blacks will feel a little more represented, because finally — 51 years after the revolution, 46 years since the founding of the Communist Party, and 36 years since the first congress — the racial and gender composition of the Central Committee is balanced.

Raul Castro noted that the representation of descendants of slaves brought from Africa was not enough and he decided to solve that problem.  The eternal leader of the revolution, Fidel Castro, said later on that it seemed like a good idea for that balance to exist.

How curious, those details don’t seem to matter when it’s a ball game.  What’s important is that the player is good on offense or defense.  People in the street say that when the time comes to select the team members for international events, other factors do indeed come into play (ideology, the level of commitment to the revolution…), meaning the probability that the player won’t abscond once they get overseas.  The problem is that these things are less evident than the color of one’s skin.

We knew what would happen beforehand

Apart from this, before the congress we knew what would happen before its closing: the guidelines would be approved, the ration book would gradually disappear, the work force would be reorganized (or, in other words, there would be mass layoffs as we march toward the “updating” of our form of socialism).  Likewise, all of this would occur “without haste, but without pause,” according to the words of our very own current first secretary of the party, who is also the president of the republic).

In 1968, with the so-called Revolutionary Offensive, even small privately owned property was eliminated, in this way ending the “last vestiges of the bourgeoisie.” Forty-three years later, socialism is now compatible with privately owned businesses.

More licenses for self-employment have been issued than in the 1990s (and many have already been returned because the taxes are so high and the competition becoming fiercer).  But like in baseball, it’s valid to make changes.  What’s important is not to wait for your rival to score six or seven runs before changing the pitcher, or to get to the ninth inning seven runs down with two outs before calling back the batter who has screwed up during the whole game and finally replace him with a pinch hitter.

2 thoughts on “From the Stands: Baseball & Politics in Cuba

  • This is brilliant! Yusimi!
    Will they understand some day that the biggest error they ever did was to be the only party in power?
    And to kill with it freedom and the creativity of cubans?

    Nicely done!

  • A homer Ms. Rodriguez.

    Keepem comin’.

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