Political protests transform U.S.-Cuba WBC semifinal into something beyond baseball

Cuba manager Armando Johnson looks on from the dugout as fans hold a Cuban flag displaying the words "Patria y Vida” on it.
Cuba manager Armando Johnson looks on from the dugout as fans hold a Cuban flag displaying “Patria y Vida” — the slogan and song linked to protests in Cuba in 2021 — during the United States’ 14-2 WBC semifinal win Sunday.
(Eric Espada / Getty Images)

The sporadic “¡Libertad!” chants and the protesters running onto the field Sunday night were reminders that the World Baseball Classic semifinal between the United States and Cuba was not just another baseball game.

This was the first time the Cuban national baseball team played in Miami, home to the largest Cuban community in this country, since the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959. It was played in, of all places, Little Havana, the neighborhood Cubans made their own when they began arriving in droves to flee Fidel Castro’s government. The dynamic was impossible to ignore. As was Team USA’s superiority between the lines in a 14-2 win in front of a sellout crowd at loanDepot Park.

Cuba took a quick 1-0 lead with three infield singles to start the game, but the U.S. dominated from there in the teams’ first WBC meeting.


Trea Turner’s grand slam led the U.S. to a 9-7 win in the WBC quarterfinals over Venezuela, which lost José Altuve when a pitch hit his right thumb.

March 18, 2023

Former Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, batting ninth for the second consecutive game, led the charge, going three for four with two home runs after blasting the go-ahead grand slam in Team USA’s quarterfinal victory over Venezuela on Saturday. His four home runs in the tournament are the most for a U.S. player in a WBC. His 10 RBIs are tied for most.

In all, the Americans had 14 hits, including four home runs. They scored in every inning they batted in but the seventh. They dismantled a Cuba team that surpassed expectations reaching this point without most of the Cubans playing in the major leagues. Team USA, the tournament’s defending champion, will face Japan or Mexico, which play Monday, in the final Tuesday.

“I usually don’t hit very well here,” said Turner, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in December. “But I’ll take these last few days. They’ve been fun for me.”

A fan holds a sign protesting the Cuban government during Sunday's World Baseball Classic semifinal in Miami.
(Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

The Cuban team that took the field Sunday was the first to feature Major League Baseball players since the country’s revolution. Chicago Cubs left-hander Roenis Elías started Sunday. The Chicago White Sox’s Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert Jr., the team’s two best position players, batted second and third. Former Dodger Erisbel Arruebarrena started at shortstop.

Each of those players took a different path back to the national team. Elías and Robert escaped Cuba by boat. Moncada was given permission to leave in 2014. Arruebarrena defected in 2013 — after a failed attempt that barred him from the Cuban National Series — and signed a $25-million contract in February 2014. He appeared in 22 games for the Dodgers that season and never reached the majors again. Five years later, he repatriated to Cuba and resumed his career there.


The Cuban team needed permission from the U.S. government — sanctions prohibit business with the country — to take part in the tournament. The Cuban Baseball Federation and players, however, weren’t allowed to receive money from the WBC, unlike the other participants.

The Cuban Baseball Federation imposed two requirements for player eligibility: Players could not have criticized the government publicly or defected during international competition to play in the United States. That left the team without several MLB veterans and stars. Some declined an invitation. Others never received one.

One of those players was Randy Arozarena. The Tampa Bay Rays outfielder defected and established residency in Mexico in 2016. Last year, he became a Mexican citizen in order to play for the country in the WBC. He has played a starring role for Mexico, helping the team reach the WBC semifinals for the first time. He told reporters after Mexico’s workout Sunday that he hoped Cuba would beat the U.S. so he could have the chance to defeat his native country in the final.

Trea Turner, left, celebrates with his U.S. teammates after hitting a three-run home run in the sixth inning against Cuba.
(Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

Arozarena, who attended Sunday’s game, won’t get that chance. Team USA was too much for Cuba to handle. Adam Wainwright rebounded from the strange start to the game to limit Cuba to one run over four innings. Miles Mikola, his St. Louis Cardinals teammate, followed with the same pitching line before Angels left–hander Aaron Loup finished it off.

“I’ve been focused on our pitching,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “How do we get our pitching lined up to get us in the finals day in, day out? That’s been the biggest thing. How do we honor these parent clubs, get the guys the work they need?”


The pregame news conference, usually a benign event, had a dose of tension. The room was filled with Cuban natives. Most defected to the United States from Cuba. A few others there still call Cuba home. At least one reporter was working for Granma — the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party.

“Us, at this minute, are focused on what really truly matters — a game that’s going to be difficult, against a good team,” Cuba manager Armando Johnson said in Spanish. “I don’t think we’re thinking about what’s going to be said or done.”

The dynamic bled onto the field in the sixth inning when a protester emerged from the crowd. He stopped in center field, where he held up a sign that called for freedom for a group of political prisoners before security escorted him off.

Another protester scampered onto the field before the seventh-inning stretch. He eluded security guards until tripping on the infield. Another protester breached security in the eighth inning.

“I went up and asked if the run rule was still in effect here,” DeRosa said, “because I just wanted to get the guys off the field.”

“Patria y Vida” — the slogan and song linked to protests in Cuba in 2021 — was prominent on flags, signs and clothing. There were scattered boos for Cuban players, but the crowd was, on the whole, on the Cuban team’s side. Fans roared during pregame introductions and after the Cuban national anthem. They exploded with each hit off a Cuban’s bat. Flags waved throughout the crowd. The people were cheering for the players if not for the government they represented.

The 2023 World Baseball Classic is underway. Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s fifth edition of the international baseball tournament.

March 22, 2023

Before the game, however, protests formed outside the ballpark, beyond the building’s perimeter. One attracted dozens of people by 5 p.m.


The people gathered around photos of political prisoners and people said to have been killed under the Cuban government’s watch. A few wore red MAGA caps. Anger and the smell of cigar smoke hovered.

One man took the microphone to address the group in Spanish. He thanked the police for allowing the protest — there were at least 15 police officers on hand — and pleaded for it to remain peaceful. His peers complied. The group swelled as first pitch approached. Periodic chants broke out.

“¡Viva Cuba libre! ¡Viva!”



A few dozen feet away, on the other side of a fence, reggaeton music boomed and alcohol flowed. Fans searched for the best entrance to their seats. They arrived with mixed feelings. They left having witnessed history and a drubbing.