It was late afternoon on a hot day in Havana. Since 8:30 a.m., we’d been in a series of meetings, in which we’d discussed everything from the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, to the structure of the Cuban government, to the future of foreign investment in Cuba. We were badly in need of a break. Fortunately, our last meeting was about sports education, and so a short while later, as the day cooled off, we found ourselves outside on a diamond, speaking a language our long-estranged nations have in common: pickup baseball.
After a day of statistics and serious discussions, it was refreshing to play ball and mix up the teams so that Cubans and Americans played together. When we served in the House of Representatives, all three of us played in the annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. Playing baseball as a way to build ties with those we disagree with wasn’t new to us. But it was exciting to be doing it in Cuba and it was fun to play in a country where baseball can be an obsession.
We didn’t travel to Cuba for baseball. We’d gone, with our friend Mike Oxley and others, to research current economic and political issues in a country that has been isolated from the United States for more than five decades. We had advisers with us, including a prominent financial consultant from Chicago and a financial affairs journalist. What we found was a country that is changing, albeit fitfully, from within. Market reforms introduced by President Raúl Castro are slowly shifting the economy from a highly centralized model to a more mixed economy. In 2009, fewer than 150,000 workers (out of a workforce of approximately 5 million) were employed by the private sector; now, there are more than 450,000 private sector workers. Non-state entities, including churches and community organizations, have more space to operate now than they have in the past 50 years, and small, privately owned businesses are popping up — and in some cases thriving — all over the island.
We still found plenty to criticize. The government continues to suppress dissent, and Castro has stated that the one-party system is not up for debate. In terms of political freedom, Cuba still has a long way to go. Nonetheless, for the first time in decades, the government has found itself needing to contend with large groups that are independent of the state and that have distinct interests and needs.
All of this points to a Cuba that is evolving. Unfortunately, the United States is missing out on the chance to play a constructive role in today’s changing Cuba. The U.S. embargo prevents Americans from investing in Cuba, even in the small businesses that are at the forefront of change and that desperately need capital and goods. And while President Barack Obama has made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, bureaucratic licensing procedures prevent most people from doing so, thereby limiting the people-to-people contacts that could help bring about change.
The U.S. embargo and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism — an inclusion that foreign policy experts say is anachronistic and counter-productive — makes foreign banks wary of dealing with Cuba at a moment when the country and its burgeoning private sector need capital more than ever. All of this is to say that the U.S. government’s sanctions are hampering the success of the very type of market reforms that the embargo was supposed to bring about.
The recent furor over ill-conceived U.S. Agency for International Development “democracy promotion” programs directed at Cuba, and the need to work out a deal to ensure the release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor in prison in Cuba, underscore why we should be talking to the Cuban government and the Cuban people.
It’s time for our government to get out of the way and facilitate — rather than prevent — the types of connections that can help the process of change in Cuba. Too often, we find ourselves tangled in controversial, covert activities like the misguided USAID “Cuban Twitter” program that do little to promote democracy. We can take straightforward steps that would help Cuba’s people and help its non-state sector grow and thrive. While Congress would have to the end the embargo, Obama has the executive authority to ease travel, open opportunities for the private sector and cooperatives and improve relations.
Our baseball game demonstrates that when Americans and Cubans do get together, they don’t find it hard to relate to one another. Our countries have a great deal in common: vibrant cultures, national pride and, of course, a love of baseball. It’s time to re-engage with Cuba and build connections that will benefit both the American and Cuban people.
We’d like to see more Cubans and more Americans playing ball together.
Former Reps. David Bonior, D-Mich., and Tom Downey, D-N.Y., were longtime players in the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.