Cuba to play in World Baseball Classic

After receiving pressure from Major League Baseball, the players’ association and the baseball commissioner’s office, the U.S. Treasury Department said Jan. 20 it would grant a license to the Cuban national baseball team, allowing its participation in the World Baseball Classic games set for March 3-20. The decision came after Cuba said it would donate any profits it received from the tournament to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The first application was denied in mid-December by the U.S., on the basis that the money made by the Cuban players during the series would be used to support the socialist island, conflicting with the U.S. economic blockade against the people of Cuba.

The 16-team tournament is the sport’s first World Cup-style series, consisting of an 18-day match-up. Professional players from North and Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa are expected to showcase their country’s best and most talented baseball stars.

The games are being coordinated by the MLB commissioner’s office and the players’ union, and are set to take place in Tokyo; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and three states in the U.S. — Florida, Arizona and California.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a critic of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, said, “I’m glad that the U.S. government has realized that it hit a foul ball by denying Cuban baseball players the opportunity to play ball in America.”

The license granted to the Cuban team by the Treasury Department eliminates a thorny complication and potentially fatal blow to the entire event.

Last month, Cuba was denied entry to participate in the series after right-wing Cuban American members of Congress urged the Treasury to veto the Major League Baseball’s license application, asking the league to drop the Cuban team. After the initial rejection, the International Baseball Federation threatened to withdraw its sanction to the tournament, if Cuba was not allowed to compete. Puerto Rico threatened to withdraw as a host country of the games if the U.S. would not reconsider letting Cuba play.

Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, called on the Bush administration to reverse its decision, saying that banning Cuba could hurt future U.S. Olympic bids. In addition, Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, linked the Cuban situation to any U.S. bid to host the 2016 Summer Games, saying that there must be assurances that all countries are allowed to compete in such events without interference.

Cuba is home to a historic powerhouse baseball team winning gold medals in the 1992, 1996 and the 2004 Olympics.

“We were always positive,” said Antonio Munoz, the promoter who paid millions of dollars to stage the first two rounds in Puerto Rico. “There were some negative people, but they were wrong in the end. I always said there was no Plan B. There was only one plan: that Cuba would come and that all efforts should be focused on obtaining approval.”