The US Can’t Be All Bad, Now Can It?

Fidel Castro warms up before a baseball exhibition game in July 1959. Source: Courier Mail (Brisbane, Australia).

It has been told that Fidel Castro has a heart for baseball; he was even said to be considered so good an amateur pitcher that he was sought by the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some baseball historians are doubtful of that account, though, and neither do they validate an anecdote told by itinerant third baseman Don Hoak (through ghostwriter Myron Cope) alleging that Castro crashed a Cuban pro-ball game he was playing in, took to the mound, asked for a glove, and threw several pitches at Hoak before being thrown out of the ballpark. Hoak’s made-up recollection ends with a curious statement: “I think that with a little work on his control, Fidel Castro would have made a better pitcher than a prime minister.” But one thing has been established: Castro did have an interest for baseball as a young man.

In a recently published journal article, Dinorah Azpuru and Dexter Boniface describe US-Latin America relations as “close but often rocky”. Although the article also asserts that anti-US sentiment in general is often contradictory (hence the significance of the apocryphal baseball exploits of a leader known to oppose the US), the authors identify a number of individual-level determinants of anti-US sentiment in Latin America. Member countries of the chavista ALBA are examined, but fellow member Cuba was not. No reasons are given; I speculate that it was because the type of public opinion data that could reasonably reflect on anti-US sentiment is unavailable for Cuba. Assuming that is the reason, gauging anti-US sentiment in Cuba is important because it could have an effect on the Cuba side of the current normalization effort. Given the lack of key data, we can only entertain some initial and highly probabilistic thoughts – more like puzzles – on this subject, some of them based on Azpuru and Boniface’s own review of the literature on anti-US sentiment writ large.

Contact-and-information theory (remittances): A report from the Inter-American Dialogue estimates that only 55% of Cubans residing in the US sends remittances to Cuba, at an average of $1,250 per sender per year and a total volume of $770 million per year. The report also suggests that as a result of changes in US policy that were implemented before the announcement of normalization, as much as 65% of Cubans residing in the US could be sending money to Cuba in the coming months, at an average of $2,400 per sender per year and a total volume of $1.7 billion. The prognosticated effect is manifold and significant: more household consumption, more personal savings, and more investments in small businesses. In Azpuru and Boniface’s study, those who receive remittances are not likely to harbor anti-US sentiments, but would that also be the case for Cubans who receive them?

Scapegoat theory: Azpuru and Boniface’s concentrate on citizen security (i.e. gangs and the drug war) and the impact of the global economic recession, which are not as relevant to Cuba as they are to the rest of Latin America. But the official statements from the Cuban government insist that the embargo, or what it still calls “blockade,” is an act of genocide (unnecessarily muddling the concept much to the chagrin of those victimized by instances of actual genocide) that has generated as much as $833 trillion in economic damages – more money by far than the proposed 2016 federal budget ($4.1 trillion). The implication is that the Cuban government blames shortcomings in key areas like public health, education, and food security on the US because it will not lift the embargo. How much of this translates into anti-US sentiment at the individual level, if at all? Could it also extend to those Cubans who receive remittances from the US?

Anti-market theory: Azpuru and Boniface also investigate whether or not ideology explains anti-US sentiment in Latin America and conclude that it does. In the case of Cuba, Fidel Castro’s public statements against the US between 1960 and 1991 (for all his fondness for the American national pastime as a young man) are numerous, well documented, and described by the authors as “symptomatic” of the anti-Americanism of Latin American Marxists. According to Azpuru and Boniface, the end of the Cold War resulted in the channeling of existing anti-US rhetoric into critiques of neoliberalism, given that it is championed by the US. Fidel Castro himself, though not in charge anymore, has a section in Granma (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party) in which he expresses his pointed views on neoliberalism and US-Cuba relations. On the other hand, his younger brother and replacement Raúl is allowing (with evident hesitation, though) the establishment of small businesses, which could develop further if the trends forecasted in the Inter-American Dialogue report come to fruition. In addition, US companies are showing interest in Cuba and, despite continuing embargo restrictions, have already made deals with its government (not different from doing business with China, but unthinkable when Fidel Castro was in power). What does all this, and especially the latter point, have to do with anti-US sentiment in Cuba? Are Cubans cherry-picking?

Sovereign-nationalist theory: The Cuban Revolution, its regime, and its embrace of Marxism have decidedly nationalistic foundations; indeed, as The Economist observed in the wake of Fidel Castro’s retirement, that is one major difference with Eastern European Marxism, which was imposed by the Soviet Union. And the US is at the center of a major part of that story, from the Platt Amendment and the seizure of Guantánamo Bay, to the machinations of Ambassador Sumner Wells, to the support given to and very belated estrangement from dictator Fulgencio Batista shortly before the triumph of the Revolution. After that, there was Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, tons of CIA plans to assassinate Castro, protecting airplane bomber Luis Posada Carriles and, of course, the embargo. But people-to-people exchanges continue and there are minimal but concrete instances of intergovernmental cooperation, particularly on migration (to avoid a repeat of the chaotic 1980 Mariel boatlift and the balsero crisis of 1994). Is cool, calm, and collected pragmatism ruling over hot-blooded anti-yanki passion? And how does that influence opinions of the US on the street, if at all?

And then there is Cuban baseball. In a book he wrote about that subject (reviewed here), Roberto González Echevarría, professor of literature at Yale, argues that American culture is so deeply ingrained in Cuban culture to the point of being one of its many components; accordingly, baseball exemplifies a process where “the other” (to put it in some way) is absorbed instead of being repelled. That is a very significant claim, considering that the Cuban Revolution and its later embrace of Marxism have a decidedly nationalistic explanation, as I mentioned before. But given the popularity of baseball in Cuba and how good Cubans are at it (as a matter of fact, they sent players like Armando Marsans, Tony Pérez and Yoenis Céspedes to Major League Baseball) González’s point makes a lot of sense. Moreover, Cuban baseball in its infancy even had its own nationalistic undertone: Spanish colonial authorities forbade baseball during the turbulent days of the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), but Cubans saw the sport as a way to vindicate their nationalistic fervor. (By the way, the Havana Baseball Club – the first-ever Cuban baseball team – was established in 1868, shortly before that war began; in turn, Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Reds – the first-ever American professional baseball team – would not be established until the following year.) Again, are Cubans cherry-picking?

Azpuru and Boniface conclude their article saying that “[a] positive and better relationship [between the US and Latin America] can be achieved through a better understanding of how citizens ‘south of the border’ feel, what their concerns are, and particularly, what are the factors that generate antipathy toward their northern neighbor.” The same can be said about this era of détente between the US and Cuba: barring a full reversal under a Republican president (unless Rand Paul wins, which is all but improbable), a lasting normalization can be achieved if the US understands how Cubans feel and takes that input into account when devising what to do next. In optimistic terms, that will burnish its image in Latin America even more and reveal to Cuba that the US is acting in good faith. On a more perverse note, it will give the Cuban Revolution less chances to blame the US for its failures and no excuses to chase dissidents like the late Oswaldo Payá, the Ladies in White, Tania Bruguera, graffiti artist “El Sexto”, and others. (Hopefully, that latter point will convince hardliners in the US – from both parties – to play along and do something really bold about Cuba. Like lifting the embargo.)

But regardless of what will happen, I do not think that anti-US sentiment in Cuba being as complex and contradictory as it is elsewhere can be that far-fetched.

These two newsreel clips show Fidel Castro speaking in English (something he does not do in public anymore) and playing baseball. Enjoy.

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Postscript (June 4, 2017): This recent online article sheds more light into Fidel Castro’s baseball myths and looks into other facets of his relationship with the sport. This news story published a few days after Castro’s passing briefly touches upon both subjects.

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