On March 22, 2016, Major League Baseball (MLB) returned to Cuba for the first time since 1999. The Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuba national team in front of thousands of screaming baseball fans and the leaders of the United States and Cuba. The game was able to happen because of the thawing in relations between the two states and represents how sports, a pastime for all countries, can also serve a greater purpose: fostering peace.
By using sports as a celebration of the normalizing of relations with Cuba, the United States and Cuba are using the shared commonality of baseball to show off their accomplishments. This visit represents to the Cuban people a potential for a new life, new money, and family visits, all while being able to maintain their cherished political ideology.
This is not the first time that the United States has utilized the concept of “sports diplomacy”. Perhaps one of the most famous incidents of statecraft and sport is the heralded “Ping-Pong Diplomacy”. During a 12-month span from 1971-72, the United States and China began to normalize relations through the medium of ping-pong. At the World Table Tennis Championship in 1971, the US table tennis team received a surprise invitation from their Chinese counterparts to make a visit to China. This was considered the “ping heard round the world”, as no Americans had set foot in China since the Communist takeover in 1949. 12 months later, the Chinese team participated in a 10 city tour of the US, only a few months after President Nixon sent Secretary of State Kissinger to a secret meeting in China. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese Premier Chou En-lai
“Sport is the conquest of the revolution,” reads the sign looming over the outfield of Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano, the island’s main stadium and hallowed ground for Cuban baseball fans, writes Patrick Oppmann. While baseball is America’s national pastime, it is Cuba’s religion. Baseball has served as a point of contention between the two countries, as Cuban players faced a lifetime ban from the country if they left the island to play ball in the U.S. during Fidel Castro’s presidency. Raul Castro, the current president, has loosened restrictions on Cubans playing in other professional leagues in Latin American countries. Even with these changes, according to Cuban officials, up to 150 players have left the island in the last year, many employing human smugglers and criminal gangs to flee to the U.S.
One of the added benefits of reengagement with Cuba is that no longer will players have to risk their lives just to play the game they love in a different country. The MLB hopes to create a, “a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play in major league baseball to reach the major leagues,” Dan Halem, the league’s chief legal officer has said. Other steps have been taken to end this practice, as well. U.S. Treasury officials announced new measures a week before the US visit that would allow Cubans to receive salaries in the U.S.; this paves the way for Cuban baseball players to potentially join the major leagues without having to defect first.
The former U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Derek Shearer, has spoken on the positive benefits of sports diplomacy. He has stated that sports can be used to more effectively bring people together across boundaries and religious and ethnic differences. He also mentions that sports can represent universal values of hard work, discipline, focus, courage, and teamwork, and be a useful vehicle for a nation’s soft power.
Love of a game is one of the few things in this world that crosses all political divides. As you watch your team’s Cuban rookie single in his first ever MLB at bat, you are not a Republican or Democrat, you are a St. Louis Cardinals fan. We all share in the love of a team and, because of that love, you are able to sit and joke with your political adversaries over the passion of the game; just as we all saw former rivals President Obama and President Castro do. Because of this, it is not absurd to talk about how sports can bring warring parties together. If you don’t believe me, just watch the Olympics and the sportsmanship between the athletes this summer.
Photo Credit-(AP) IsmaelFrancisco