The U.S. government relented Friday in its effort to bar Cuba from playing in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, issuing a license to the island's national team on the condition no proceeds from the March tournament get into the hands of the Communist regime of President Fidel Castro.
The reversal of a Dec. 18 decision by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control spared the event from doom and probably averted future retaliatory boycotts of U.S.-based competitions.
The Treasury's initial ruling that Cuba's participation would violate the 45-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba spurred angry denunciations throughout the sporting world that Washington was using the event to play politics.
Major League Baseball organizers hope the tournament will become a genuine international forum for the sport, which will be dropped from the Olympics after 2008. Participation in the Olympics by leading U.S. players has been limited because the Games occur during the height of the major league season, while the March 3-20 tournament precedes opening day.
"This decision shows that sportsmanship can in fact transcend petty political feuds," said U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who led a bipartisan 90-member congressional delegation in protesting the initial OFAC ruling. "Allowing Cuba to play in this baseball tournament was the right decision, both for the fans and for international relations."
Faced with a severely diluted tournament, moving some WBC games to venues outside of the U.S., such as Canada, or canceling the tournament altogether, officials from MLB and its players' union were relieved by the Treasury's decision.
"I wish to thank the Department of State and the Department of Treasury for their assistance in securing the approvals necessary for Cuba to participate," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
Just this week, baseball federations from the U.S. and 14 other nations submitted preliminary rosters of up to 60 players. Nearly half of those play in the U.S. major leagues, among them some of the biggest names in the game; Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter have committed to play for Team USA.
The tournament has been criticized for its timing; it will be conducted during spring training, so pitchers will be on strict pitch counts and hitters could be recovering from the five-month off-season. But, according to a baseball official, ticket sales for the semifinals and final, March 18 and 20 in San Diego, are promising.
Cuba would play its first- and second-round games in Puerto Rico. It would have to advance from pool play and the second round to compete in San Diego, and would not play Team USA unless both advanced to the final. (Other second-round games will be played at Angel Stadium.)
"To have them not in it would really have diminished the tournament quite a bit," Team USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said. "It's good to have them there."
A call to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington was not returned, but Cuban officials previously had denounced their national team's exclusion as U.S. government intrusion into the world of friendly sporting competition.
U.S. policy toward Cuba has long been a bone of contention with Latin American and other allies, who continue to trade with and travel to Cuba. The rise of leftist-ruled governments throughout the region has strengthened opposition to the U.S. embargo against Cuba and raised the prospect of Washington becoming a nonentity in influencing Latin American development, warned Larry Birns, head of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
U.S. officials, in announcing the turnabout on Cuba's participation, tried to cast the decision as re-evaluation of new facts rather than a retreat.
Asked whether Castro's offer to donate any proceeds from the tournament to victims of Hurricane Katrina had influenced the decision, Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise declined to discuss why the second application was successful. "We were able to reach a licensable agreement that upholds both the legal scope and the spirit of the sanctions. The agreement ensures that no funding will make its way into the hands of the Castro regime," she said.
Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the Western Hemisphere Affairs division of the State Department, said Castro's offer "had nothing to do with" the government's altered conclusion.
"The previous license application was not in accordance with U.S. government policy toward Cuba, which includes the denial of resources to the Castro regime," he said. "Cuba is not licensed to receive any revenue for participation in the World Baseball Classic, so it won't have any revenue to donate to Katrina victims."
Noting that Cubans continue to suffer from the destructive 2005 hurricane season, Watnik added that the U.S. government "urges the Castro regime to help its own people."
Though the decision seemed an exception from the Bush administration's usual hard line on Cuba, policy experts in Washington said they did not interpret it as an important policy shift.
"Exile politics ran into baseball and baseball won," said Daniel Erikson, a specialist on the Caribbean at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
He said the administration appeared to have made a "strategic decision" to cut its losses rather than press a fight that risked not only this tournament but also a possible future U.S. Olympic bid, and would have pitted the government against major league baseball figures.
The standoff over Cuba's participation had also threatened an embarrassing rift with Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican Baseball Federation had said it would withdraw as hosts, and political leaders embroiled in the island's heated national debate on whether to pursue U.S. statehood or independence pointed to Washington's earlier decision as damaging to the Spanish-speaking territory's own Latin American relations.
"This showed the absurdity of the relationship, that it's not in our hands who can get a visa here and who cannot," Puerto Rican Independence Party leader Fernando Martin said of the mainland effort to bar Cuba.
Sir Ronald Sanders, a retired Caribbean diplomat and respected regional commentator, said the exclusion of Cuba would have cast the United States into a poor international light and alienated neighbors at a time when relations with Latin America are already strained.
The few voices in support of keeping Castro's countrymen out of the tournament came from the Cuban exile community in Miami.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), whose aunt was once married to Castro, tried to organize a team of Cuban players who had defected to the United States to play under the Cuban flag. His chief of staff, Anna Carbonell, dismissed as "ludicrous" suggestions that excluding the Olympic champion Cuba team from the Classic would hurt U.S. cities' bids to host Olympic games and other global tournaments in the future.
But sports executives involved in the Soviet-boycotted Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 cheered the U.S. government's reversal on the World Baseball Classic as dodging another disastrous round of politics besmirching international competition.
"Every move the Bush people have tried to prevent it [Cuba's participation], Castro has done them one better from the public relations standpoint," said Rene Henry, who was media coordinator for the 1984 Games. By offering to donate any winnings to hurricane victims in New Orleans, "Fidel took the high road and looked like a hero."
Times staff writer Paul Richter, in Washington, contributed to this report.