For Miami's Cubans, a choice between sports, politics
MIAMI -- Cuban immigrant Luis Gomez was quick to pick his favorite in the World Baseball Classic championship game between Japan and Cuba.
"We're Cubans. We root for Cuba," the 83-year-old said as he picked up his usual lunch of chicken and rice at Los Pinarenos cafe in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
Across the counter, shopkeeper Angel Hernandez, 66, shook his head.
"If Cuba wins, Fidel wins," Hernandez said. "I hope Japan wins."
As Cuba and Japan prepared for Monday night's game in San Diego, Miami's Cubans found themselves in an awkward position, split over whether to root for the Cubans or protest the participation of the communist country in the tournament.
Their passion for baseball and Cuba is legendary, but so too is their hatred of Fidel Castro and their opposition to anything that makes him look good.
Hernandez, who fled Cuba in 1960, was quick to note that he has nothing against players such as pitchers Pedro Lazo and Ormario Romero, but added, "Fidel, he uses everything. He will use a win. It will make him look better at home and internationally."
Gomez agreed with that, but added: "What does a baseball player, or a doctor for that matter, have to do with the politics?"
For decades the answer has been a lot.
Hundreds of Cuban musicians, artists and intellectuals have been refused U.S. visas under a 1985 U.S. presidential proclamation that prohibits most Cuban government employees from entering the United States. Most of these artists are compensated by the Cuban government.
The restrictions have gotten even tighter in recent years.
The U.S. Treasury Department initially refused the visa for the Cuban team to play in the World Baseball Classic, reversing its stance only after Cuba promised to donate profits from the tournament to victims of Hurricane Katrina -- meaning Castro's government would receive no financial gain.
Over the weekend, demonstrators decried the participation of the Cuban team during a protest along Little Havana's main drag, Calle Ocho, and the AM radio dial's Spanish-language talk shows were filled with people sounding off about the Classic.
South of Little Havana in the upscale city of Coral Gables, where cafes and haute couture bridal boutiques line the central street, Omar Quereshy, who describes himself as half Cuban, half Pakistani, scoffed at the notion that he should boycott the team of his mother's native country.
"That's ludicrous," the 25-year-old accountant said. "Athletes are athletes."
Yet for 30-year-old Victor Uranga of Sweetwater, rooting against Cuba would be showing respect for family. His fled Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
"I was rooting for the U.S., but I guess now I'm going for Japan," Uranga said, with what were clearly mixed feelings.
"We've got to give credit, a lot of credit, to that Cuban team. Everyone was just under the impression that they always played amateurs, and they never going to go toe-to-toe with the professionals, and definitely they've done that and then some," he said. "But feelings are still strong, especially in the older generation, and I'm not about to go against that."