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The Cuba Diaries -- From Politics to Baseball

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"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." --Nelson Mandela

"If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be." --Yogi Berra

* * *

It's not often that I hear about people trying to get into GTMO. As a lawyer representing those who have been tortured and held there -- for years, lawlessly and incommunicado -- I've always considered it a place to leave. Yet I know of a man who lost his leg in a minefield while attempting the border cross, before he eventually reached the base and received asylum from the United States. And he's just one of thousands of Cubans who have left their entire lives behind (often losing their life or limbs along the way), in order to escape their own country's oppressive regime and seek asylum by way of Guantanamo Bay -- the same place where, to my mind, human rights go to die.

Truly, it's all about perspective. Many prefer the comfort and convenience of black-and-white thinking to the uneasy ambiguities of grey; but as our greatest moral leaders have demonstrated, there's always another side to a situation, even in GTMO. You just need access and experience to see it.

I've recently been fortunate to see the other side of Cuba -- not as a lawyer challenging American policies, but as a baseball fan on a "cultural visa" granted by the United States; lucky enough to accompany my boyfriend on his trip to play against various Cuban teams. The baseball ambassadors boarded the plane looking like the cast of an adult remake of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club -- all ages, cities, and walks of life represented, a ragtag army comprised of sales guys, lawyers, engineers, nurses, blue-collar workers, academics, West Point grads, aging playboys, pseudo-intellectual stragglers, and those who had a penchant for remaining drunk (or as the playful, retired pharmaceutical rep called it, "jolly").

We began our trip unsure of each other. My East Coast cynicism crept through my West Coast armor as I gazed tentatively at my new 24-hour travel buddies, from whom there was no escape for the next 10 days. I was, in a word, dubious.

But baseball quickly brought everyone together. Within days, the hallmarks of intimacy began to emerge; private jokes, nicknames, and affectionate teasing became a daily ritual. Deeper conversations accompanied the darker hours, as we revealed our vulnerabilities to one another over bottomless rounds of Cuba Libres (rum-and-cokes), which our Cuban guide (after a few himself) confidentially told us many actually refer to as mentirita, or "a little lie" -- alluding to the politics he was not supposed to discuss.

"I love being around you guys," a somewhat dim player from New York declared over a late night dinner of tough meat and fabulous jazz. "Many people just find me offensive."

"You're not offensive," offered a public defender from San Diego -- and then, with the perfect blend of wit and warmth, clarified, "You're just unintentionally inappropriate."

Baseball, with its mystical ability to evoke an atmosphere of cultural identity and oneness, also provided a common ground between the two countries. On the field, American and Cuban players showed enormous generosity of spirit, bowing their heads for each other's national anthems, trading jerseys and keepsakes, and forming instant friendships -- and all this despite language barriers. This is the game they had all played since they were kids, and it showed. After all, baseball is the same everywhere -- or as one character in Bull Durham noted: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball (though, in our case, some better than others, as the ex-professional Cuban players effortlessly swept every game).

Off the field, meanwhile, wives, girlfriends, and local paid companions bonded over the nine-inning quest for toilet paper, and jointly sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (alas, to the players' dismay, never in the right inning) for a cheering Cuban fan club. The entire town of Santa Clara had cancelled school to come out for their game; and, from the stands, I watched kids posture themselves with that studied look of teenage nonchalance. Apparently high school is the same everywhere, too.

We found even more common ground when we boarded the bus and traveled to the countryside. My boyfriend played stickball with a group of children wearing no gloves or shoes, reminding him of his own childhood in the Bronx, where they were also too poor for traditional equipment. Afterwards, we treated them all to ice cream, which we bought for pennies, tipping the store owner $10 in tourist currency, more money than she sees in three months. (Tipping feels bittersweet in Cuba, as the over-pouring of appreciation only underscores the direness of their lives, and explains the reason prostitution catered to foreign tourists remains a rational life-choice.)

After striking up a conversation with a local in Remedios, one of the American players struggled to come to terms with the fact that his own mother left Cuba only months before she gave birth to him, provoking the jarring reality that "it could have been me" living there, but for timing and circumstance.

By the end of our stay -- and true to the message of any John Hughes movie -- all of our differences had fallen aside, as the shared experience revealed our similarities and common humanity.

Perhaps our international leaders could a learn a lesson from this kind of adventure. While the U.S. maintains an embargo of Cuba for its government's human rights abuses, our own leaders run Guantanamo Bay on their very soil -- one of the most massive human rights abuses committed by a developed nation. Predictably, the U.S. embargo and exclusionary policies only fuel the practices America claims to denounce. This latter point appears to be acknowledged by the Cuban government itself, something I discovered when I wandered into a tucked away room at the National Monument Revolutionary Museum called "The Corner of the Cretins," which displays cartoon caricatures of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (senior and junior), accompanied by ironic inscriptions thanking them for their roles in strengthening the Cuban revolution, and for making it "irrevocable." Translation: "Thank you for being so extreme and short-sighted in your policies that we can actually use them as fodder to justify our regime with the Cuban people."

Unfortunately, we're a punitive culture, repeatedly enacting legislation based on emotion rather than reason, and turning a blind eye toward the reality that punishment alone rarely works to alter another's behavior (GTMO, anyone?). We love heroes and we love villains -- and we are rarely right about either. So we maintain a failed embargo based on the will of a small minority out of fear and revenge for what has been done in the past. That's always a bad cocktail for effective policy.

Although history repeatedly teaches us that common experience, trade, and exchange of ideas fuel progress, we continue to enforce a policy on the island nation of Cuba based on denying access to the very beliefs we are trying to instill. Understanding the link between this access and change, the Castro regime has steadfastly censored newspapers, blocked the Internet, and even continues to monitor conversations its citizens have with tourists. On our end, successful policy towards Cuba must encompass the principle of bringing people together -- not keeping them apart -- a civic model with proven success throughout the world. (Think of the dramatic reduction of violence in Kingston, Jamaica, thanks, in part, to community action and a focus on common activities, such as late night soccer matches that include members of former gangs.)

Signs of change? While there was a great deal of speculative debate over whether President Obama and President Castro shaking hands at Nelson Mandela's memorial service last month had political significance or was simply common courtesy, the poignancy of the moment was clear. Two warring countries came together to honor Mandela, a leader who transcended all differences and unified the world with his teachings about the fruits of forgiveness, the pointlessness of retribution and recriminations, and the true spirit of achieving power through a shared humanity with all -- even those responsible for his own imprisonment.

Hopefully, as President Obama and other leaders continue to question our anachronistic isolationist policies -- and travel restrictions on both sides continue to ease -- that controversial handshake will symbolize the beginning of an end of the embargo era, a baby step in the direction of reason-based legislation.

And, maybe then, we can all play ball.