Playing Games with Cuba

September 8, 2008

This past Saturday, the United States men’s national soccer team made history by being the first U.S. national soccer team to play in Cuba in over 61 years. The match was one of several qualifying matches the U.S. and Cuba will play to earn a seat in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the world’s most popular sporting event.  While few watched the historic match transmitted from Havana’s Pedro Marreno stadium on ESPN Classic and Galavision, the significance of the event should not be overlooked. The positive impact of the contact between Americans and Cubans was reflected in words by American players and commentators and by the images of Cuban and U.S. fans and players exchanging hugs following the 1-0 victory by the U.S. Even the more cynical critics of such events could find positive aspects to the historic event, when in the 86th minute much of the stadium’s lighting went dark, evidence to those watching outside Cuba of the declining infrastructure of a nation mismanaged almost to the point of total collapse. Of particular interest to U.S. viewers and Cuban-Americans specifically was a half-time report by one of the commentators done from the former home of his Cuban father in which the commentator introduced the neighbors who had once help raise his father, a visible sign of the true nature of reconciliation and the value of human contact.

Not mentioned during the game was why the U.S. government allowed the men’s national team to travel to Cuba for the match for the first time in so many years. Traditionally Cuba and the U.S. have played their World Cup qualifying matches in neutral territory. This is an especially relevant question given the recent authorization by the U.S. Government of a little league baseball team to travel to Cuba for an exhibition game. It would appear as if the U.S. Government has relaxed its strict control over travel licenses for sporting events (regulated and issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the U.S. Treasury Department) in a concerted effort to increase person-to-person contact between ordinary Americans and their Cuban counterparts. If true, such a measure deserves praise.

However positive many of the images seen Saturday night from Pedro Marreno stadium, one was particularly troublesome the image of a handful of American fans sitting in the bleachers sporting sunglasses and bandanas to cover their faces, presumably in order to avoid prosecution by the U.S. government for violating the U.S. travel embargo, a fine which carries a maximum penalty of $250,000 and/or 10 years in prison. These images send the wrong message to the world and to the Cuban fans sitting in the bleachers alongside these American fans about U.S. values and the respect for individual rights in America. The U.S. can and should be the symbol of freedom and democracy for millions of oppressed people throughout the world, especially Cuba. Images such as these do little to portray that symbol and undermine U.S. efforts to bring about meaningful change in Cuba and win the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. Fortunately the true nature of the American spirit was apparent when U.S. players returned to the field following their 1-0 victory to show their appreciation for the Cuban fans in the stands who responded with a standing ovation. 

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