- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

The U.S. government issued a license yesterday permitting Cuba to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, reversing its previous position barring the island nation from competing in this March’s 16-team event.

Major League Baseball’s initial application to allow the Cubans a spot in the tournament had been denied last month by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The government at the time felt that President Fidel Castro would reap economic benefits from participation in the event and that in turn would violate the United States’ 45-year-old embargo on Cuba.

But the Treasury Department was swayed by news the Cubans plan to donate any money they earn from the WBC to victims of Hurricane Katrina and yesterday granted the license.

“Working closely with World Baseball Classic Inc. and the State Department, we were able to reach a licensable agreement that upholds both the legal scope and the spirit of the sanctions,” Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise told the Associated Press. “This agreement ensures that no funding will make its way into the hands of the Castro regime. The Treasury is pleased to now be able to issue this license and looks forward to seeing all of the teams showcase their talents on the international stage.”

MLB, organizers of this first-time event, has maintained all along that Cuba’s participation was crucial to its success. The Cubans have long boasted one of the world’s most dominant baseball clubs, having won the gold medal at the 1992, 1996 and 2004 Olympics.

Had Cuba not been allowed to participate, other participants (most notably Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, which is scheduled to host first- and second-round games) were threatening to withdraw, and the International Baseball Federation said it might no longer sanction the tournament.

Now, though, the inaugural WBC will proceed as planned from March 3 to March 20 with a talented and wide-open field of participants, making for a potentially exciting event. Because major-league players are allowed to participate for the first time in an international tournament, as many as five or six countries believe they have a legitimate chance of winning.

“The federal government thoughtfully and diligently helped us bring the application process to a successful conclusion,” baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said. “Now, with Cuba’s entry in the tournament approved, the World Baseball Classic promises to be an historic event and will guarantee our fans the greatest possible competition among the best players in the world.”

Cuba is slated to open play March 7 in Puerto Rico in a first-round pool that also includes Panama and the Netherlands. If it advances, Cuba would also play its second-round games in Puerto Rico. The U.S. team, which is expected to include superstars Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter, will play its first-round games in Phoenix and — should it advance — second-round games in Anaheim, Calif.

The semifinals and championship game will be played in San Diego March 18 and 20 — the only time the Cuban team would potentially set foot on mainland American soil.

This wouldn’t be the first time, however, that Cuba has played baseball in the United States. In 1999, the national team played two exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles, one in Havana and one at Camden Yards, with Mr. Castro in attendance.

Despite the potential political backlash, President Bush — an avid baseball fan and former owner of the Texas Rangers — supported the inclusion of the Cuban team in the WBC under the right circumstances.

“The president wanted to see it resolved in a positive way,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the AP. “Our concerns were centered on making sure that no money was going to the Castro regime and that the World Baseball Classic would not be misused by the regime for spying. We believe the concerns have been addressed.”

Fans in Cuba celebrated yesterday’s announcement, but some Cuban exiles now living in the United States were not so supportive.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a Cuban-American, called the government’s decision “lamentable and unfortunate” and called on the Cuban players to defect once they reach Puerto Rico.

“I hope that the Cuban players will use this opportunity to escape totalitarianism and reach freedom in the U.S.,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said.

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