Our last full day in Havana began with a visit to a local park, where we watched physical education classes taking place. Again, access to sports is a human right in Cuba, and physical education is highly emphasized from a young age and through schooling. Here we saw (and a few of us even participated in) some volleyball and soccer. We also saw a class for 1-3 year olds and their parents where development of motor and social skills was emphasized.
This was a very rewarding part of our delegation’s trip, as we got to see Cuba’s emphasis on physical education in action. We also had a very unique chance to interact with some of the students and get some of their thoughts about life in Cuba. Many of them were very excited to speak with Americans, and expressed a great desire to one day visit the U.S. Many of them expressed how their physical education class was their favorite part of the day, and of course many of them showed a desire to one day be a professional athlete. It was a fantastic opportunity to see how important sports are to the youth of Cuba and to interact with some of the local children and get an insight into their hopes and dreams.
After lunch, we headed back to Estadio Latinoamericano once more to meet with Tony Castillo, the Director of the Federacion Cubana de Beisbol, where we discussed issues pertaining to Cuban baseball and the potential future relationship between Cuba and Major League Baseball. Again, this was a big highlight for me personally as a baseball fan. It was interesting to see the differences, but almost more interesting to see the similarities between the Serie Nacional in Cuba and Major League Baseball. For example, both leagues feature an All-Star game, and both leagues are starting to see a move toward advanced statistical metrics in evaluating players. The Serie Nacional has also recently introduced instant replay, though due to the limited availability of cameras in Cuba, instant replay is only used for nationally televised games. Further issues with instant replay arose earlier this year when Pope Francis visited, and the cameras that were being used for replay were needed for coverage of the Pope’s visit. The format of instant replay in the Serie Nacional is very similar to Major League Baseball’s, with a fifth umpire assigned to the game who reviews the call from the booth. Each manager is allotted 1 challenge from the first-seventh innings, then 2 challenges from the seventh-ninth innings. Managers then receive more challenges (should they need them) as the game progresses into extra innings.
The Serie Nacional has an interesting format to its season. There are 16 teams, one representing each province in Cuba, with 2 teams representing Havana. All 16 teams play in the first half, but the 8 teams with the worst record are eliminated after the first half. In addition, the 8 teams that qualify for the second half then hold a draft to add 4 more players to their roster from the pool of players that were on the rosters of the eliminated teams. After the second half, the top 4 teams then move on to the semifinals, and then the teams advancing from the semifinals play for the championship. Both the semifinals and championship are 7 game series.
Of course, there is a great desire among the Cuban people to see its stars play regularly in the Major Leagues. There is a lot of pride in Cuba about its baseball program and the Serie Nacional, and there is a solid belief that its players are among the best in the world. While players like Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have all shown flashes of brilliance in the Major Leagues, it remains to be seen just how much talent is in Cuba, and if that talent has not already begun to be drained. Of course, it is still incredibly difficult to evaluate Cuban talent because of how difficult it is for Americans to access Cuban baseball.
On our last morning, on our way to the airport, we had managed to arrange a visit to the United States Embassy in Havana through some pretty great contacts. None of us expected a whole lot from the visit, but it would still be cool to visit the Embassy, which was only just re-established in July, during this historic time in American-Cuban relations.
We were taken to the top floor and led to an office where a man introduced himself Jeffrey DeLaurentis and invited us into his office. It took a few a us a few seconds to realize what was happening, but suddenly here we were with the Chargé d’affaires and acting ambassador to Cuba. (The Senate has not formally confirmed Mr. DeLaurentis, but for all intents and purposes in this politically divisive time, he’s the Ambassador to Cuba.)
We were able to spend about 45 minutes with the Ambassador, where we discussed what we had learned and observed in Havana throughout the week, and balanced out our Cuban perspectives from the week with some official American perspectives. Mr. DeLaurentis was very optimistic, but much more realistic about the magnitude of challenges that are still ahead on the road to full normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The Obama administration is working very hard toward normalization within its authority, and at this point it is felt that the U.S. and Cuba are far enough along that it would not be practical or popular for a potential Republican administration to substantially roll back the progress that has been made.
Our meeting with Mr. DeLaurentis was a true treat and a fantastic end to our time in Cuba. From the embassy, we made the trek out to Jose Marti International Airport and boarded our 45 minute flight back to Miami.
Our time in Cuba was incredibly rewarding. As much as I had wanted to visit over the years, I could not have imagined a much more exciting or rewarding trip. We received phenomenal insight into the Cuban sports industry, along with a new appreciation for the idea that sports can truly overcome differences in culture and government to unite people that have been forcibly separated for over half a century. Our delegation came away with realistic, but optimistic, hopes for the future between the U.S. and Cuba, and we will hopefully see Cuban stars in Major League Baseball and other major U.S. sports leagues with regularity. We’re about as close as we have ever been, and that is something to be excited about.