MIAMI — Jose Vilela fled Cuba for the United States when he was 14 years old after spending six months in a concentration camp. Like many of his compatriots, he settled in Miami’s Cuban neighborhood, Little Havana.
Vilela, now 68, paced Sunday afternoon outside loanDepot Park, the Miami Marlins’ home stadium, where the Cuban national baseball team was set to face the United States for a spot in the World Baseball Classic hours later.
For prideful expats eager to separate sports from politics, the country’s first ever baseball game in Miami was cause for celebration.
But for Vilela and hundreds of others, it was reason to protest the political oppression they escaped. Vilela stalked the stadium Sunday, yelling outside for anyone associated with the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who embraced Soviet-style communism, to leave the community. That included many Cuban players who are technically government employees.
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“We don’t want them here,” Vilela said. “None. People that work for the Castro family. We don’t want them. They can go any place they want. Go to New York. Go to California. Not Miami. I hope this is the last time they come here.”
Yosvel Gonzalez was born in Cuba and wore an orange and teal jersey of the late Cuban-born Marlins pitcher José Fernández, who died in a boating accident in 2016. Gonzalez said he expects the environment during the game to be tense, but he’s rooting for Team Cuba.
“I love this country because they gave me freedom and political asylum when I got here,” he said of the United States. “But my land is my land. I don’t care which government is in power.”
There are reminders throughout the community in Little Havana of Cuba’s government.
Bull Bar, a shuttered spot in walking distance from the ballpark, was once a popular bar during Miami Hurricanes football games. It has a large poster on its wall that says “Freedom for Cuba” with a picture of a boot stomping on the island. Vendors were on street corners near the bar as early as 10 a.m. Sunday to sell apparel for both Team USA and Team Cuba.
Many shirts displayed the words “Patria y Vida,” meaning “homeland and life,” in opposition of Castro’s rallying cry “homeland or death.”
“Their claim is that we’re all Cuban, and that’s not true,” said Marilyn Almaguer, who fled the island in 1996 as sympathizers of the government threw eggs and rocks at her. “With that government there, we cannot be all Cubans.”
While soccer is largely the most popular sport in Latin America, baseball dominates in Cuba.
The island has a rich pool of baseball talent and history of success in the sport. Cuba’s baseball team won Olympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2004, but mass defections by players have limited the islands’ ability to remain competitive on the international stage. The Cuban baseball team failed to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
High-performing athletes on the island earn a salary from the government to train and compete, but Cuba has prohibited professional sports in the island since the Cuban revolution 60 years ago.
Longtime sanctions by the U.S. make it largely impossible for Cubans to play professionally for an American team without defecting. Meanwhile, Cuba historically has not allowed Cuban players who defected on their national team rosters.
The United States for the first time is letting Cuban-born MLB stars play for their homeland in the WBC, making this a rare mixed roster of current Cuban players and defectors.
“The biggest lack of respect to this country that has opened up its doors for us,” Almaguer said of the MLB players. “They claim to be fleeing a dictatorship, and this country gave them an opportunity. Gave them everything, and now they want to play for the same team that suppressed them. They’re laughing at the United States by doing that.”
Not all Cuban-born MLB players chose to take advantage of the U.S.’s change of heart.
Randy Arozarena, outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays, was born and raised in Cuba but chose to represent Mexico, where he lived in his early 20s, in the tournament.
“To me, Mexico is special,” Arozarena said, “since when I left Cuba, Mexico is a country that received me with arms open.”
Alfredo Despaigne, Team Cuba’s captain, said having fans cheering against the team won’t be a bother.
“That’s natural in baseball,” he said. “ It doesn’t affect us. I played for nine years in Japan and we had fans supporting our team and others supporting other teams. So everyone is free to feel and to think whatever they want. It won’t affect us.”
Ramon Saul Sanchez, an organizer of Sunday’s protests, said he is not against the Cuban baseball players. Sanchez, 68, has been separated from his family since moving to the Little Havana area 55 years ago.
“We all want to support the Cuban baseball team,” Sanchez said. “Right now, it’s more complex because it’s also playing the U.S. baseball team as well. And we have our heart divided between the two countries. But there is the most important issue here that we know that behind this game is not simple sports, but a lot of politics.”
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