"Base ball has taken a strong hold on the Cuban public. There are over seventy-five clubs in that little island. The Sporting Life also has quite a large sale down there . . ." - The Sporting Life, August 22, 1891
Cuba is an island country located in the Caribbean region. The nation's capital is Havana. Baseball has a long and rich history in Cuba, having first been brought to the island by young men who had gone to study in the United States in the 19th Century. The sport was quickly adopted by all social classes as a nationalist symbol at a time when the island's population sought its independence from Spain and looked to the United States as a potential protector. Negro League players often played in Cuba before 1950 on racially mixed teams, and many great major league players have come from Cuba. Baseball is currently governed by the Federación Cubana de Béisbol (Cuban Baseball Federation), which sponsors the Cuban National League. In the pre-Revolution era, there was the professional Cuban League and a number of minor league teams who were part of organized baseball played in Havana.
1959 Cuban Revolution
The Cuban Revolution was the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista's regime by the 26th of July Movement and the establishment of a new Cuban government led by Fidel Castro in 1959. Castro's revolutionary campaign began with the unsuccessful assault on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, and ended on January 1, 1959, when Batista was driven from the country and the cities of Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba were seized by rebels, led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro's surrogates Raúl Castro and Huber Matos, respectively. The term "Cuban Revolution" is also used to refer to the social revolution after the overthrow of Batista and the adoption of Marxist principles by the new Cuban Government.
The Cuban Winter League and Havana Sugar Kings were the primary baseball victims of the revolution, as professional baseball was stopped. The amateur Cuban Serie Nacional got its start as a result, to continue top baseball competition on the island. Major league teams were forbidden from signing Cuban players, who had to seek permission - seldom granted - to play outside the island. The Cuban government focused its efforts on developing the Cuban national team as a force that could compete with anyone in the world in amateur competitions. This program was very successful, as the Cuban team dominated international events until the 1990s, while very few top players left.
The Mariel boatlift was a mass movement of Cubans who departed from Cuba's Mariel Harbor to the United States between April 15 and October 31, 1980. It was precipitated by a sharp downturn in the Cuban economy, leading to simmering internal tensions on the island and a bid by up to 10,000 Cubans to gain asylum in the Peruvian embassy. Subsequently the government announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, and an impromptu exodus organised by Cuban-Americans with the agreement of Cuban President Fidel Castro was underway. The exodus was ended by mutual agreement between the two governments in October 1980; by that time up to 125,000 had made the journey to Florida. Barbaro Garbey was the most notable baseball player to switch countries at this point.
As the door had closed almost as soon as it had opened, any departures from Cuba during the following decade and a half required a dangerous personal initiative and were usually followed by persecution against any family members left behind. Defections thus remained few and far between.
The end of the Cold War
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the end of the Cold War exacerbated growing economic problems in Cuba, as the country lost its principal supplier of energy and of many consumer goods. While the Cuban regime was expected to follow in turn, it hung on through periods of partial liberalization followed by severe crackdowns on dissidents. The United States maintained an economic embargo on the island from the 1960s onward, but it was not followed by any other country, which allowed Cuba to survive even if it was far from thriving. The growing hardships led many of its citizens to consider the possibility of braving the seas in order to seek exile in the United States or elsewhere. Baseball players were among this number, with players such as Livan Hernandez and Yuniesky Betancourt escaping by boat in precarious conditions to eventually reach the United States. Other players defected during international tournaments, depriving Cuban baseball of many of its stars, starting in the mid-1990s - both those who left and those who were suspected of wanting to leave and were thus kept from playing for the national team.
By the mid-2000s, a badly ill Fidel Castro was no longer making decisions in Cuba, but the closed regime continued to function under his brother Raul and various cronies. Support received from nearby Venezuela and its President Hugo Chavez helped the island to keep its head above water economically, although the advancing age of the Castro brothers and Chavez's own death left the future in doubt by the beginning of the 2010s. Indeed defections became a veritable flood early that decade, with players like Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu becoming millionaires and instant stars when they signed with major league teams after defecting, encouraging numerous others to follow suit.
Reestablishment of Diplomatic Relations with the United States
Late in 2014, President Barack Obama announced his willingness to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and to ask Congress to lift the economic embargo. It was clear that radical changes were on the way. Ironically, Cuba had just been readmitted to play in the Caribbean Series in 2014, but its representatives, far from dominating the event as they likely would have done a few years earlier, struggled to keep up with the makeshift entries from the traditional winter leagues. The national team's performance in international tournaments it used to dominate had likewise been disappointing, with its first-round exit in the 2013 World Baseball Classic a case in point. The Cuban entry did win the 2015 Caribbean Series, as the possibility of free circulation of teams and players between Cuba and the United States was becoming an ever-closer possibility.
On March 20-22, 2016, President Obama made a historic visit to Cuba, being the first US President to come to the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Baseball was at the center of the diplomatic exchanges, as the Tampa Bay Rays traveled to Havana to play an exhibition game against the Cuban national team on the last day of the visit, becoming only the second major league team to come to Cuba since the revolution (the Baltimore Orioles had played an exhibition series against the national team in 1999, but this did not have any longer-term impact). This had been preceded by a goodwill visit by current and former Major league players of Cuban origin during the winter, during which were treated not as traitors but as heroes. The Rays made sure to bring along the lone Cuban player in their organization, AA OF Dayron Varona, so that he could have the thrill of seeing his a family and playing at home for the first time since his defection.
However, the wind of liberalization hit a bump with the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016. Bent on seemingly reversing every policy endorsed by his predecessor, Trump put the brakes on the growing rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, although he did not go so far as to close the re-opened Embassy, While defections continued to take place, opportunities for Cuban players to play legally outside Cuba also grew significantly. In one interesting initiative, in 2016, the Cuban national team agreed to play a schedule of games against teams in the Canadian-American Association, an independent league half of whose teams are based in Canada - an important consideration given that Canada had always maintained civil relations with Cuba even during times when relations with the U.S. were at a low point. The initiative was repeated in future years and led to others young players, the most prominent being Luis Robert, being scouted and signed by major league teams.
On December 19, 2018, the Cuban Baseball Federation reached a historic deal with Major League Baseball allowing players to be scouted and signed by major league teams, with a transfer fee being paid to the Federation. The purpose of the deal was to end the need for players to defect, and in the process put their lives at risk and have to deal with unsavory criminal elements involved in human trafficking. The deal stemmed directly from from President Obama's breakthrough changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba, and as such was at risk of being nixed by the Trump Administration, which had made it a standard policy to roll back any progress achieved by its predecessor. Indeed, on April 8, 2019, the Trump Administration revoked the agreement, objecting to the payments.
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- Cesar Brioso: Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and The Cuban League, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 2015. ISBN 978-0813061160
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- César Brioso: Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball in Cuba, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2019. ISBN 978-1-4962-0551-3
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- Jesse Sanchez: "In Cuba, baseball brings 2 countries together", mlb.com, March 21, 2016. 
- Jesse Sanchez: "Live today from Cuba: History, must-see MLB: President to be on hand for exhibition between Rays, Cuba", mlb.com, March 22, 2016. 
- Jesse Sanchez: "Cuba overflowing with talent despite defections: Island considers itself a source for pro-level ballplayers", mlb.com, February 4, 2018. 
- Madeline Shutt: "Cubans effusive about passion for baseball: Country's love for sport highlighted during Penn State's exhibition tour", mlb.com, November 29, 2015. 
- Jesse Yomtov and John Fritze: "Trump administration cancels MLB's deal with Cuba", USA Today, April 8, 2019. 
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