12/17/2005 04:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Swing and a Miss: Why Bush Won’t Play Ball with Cuba

It’s hard to know what was on Major League baseball’s mind when it sought to include Cuba and its baseball players in the World Baseball Classic that will take place next March in venues including Puerto Rico.

Not that it isn’t a wonderful idea; it is. But Cuba’s participation in the tournament depended on the Bush Treasury Department’s willingness to grant the players visas to enter the United States. And the chances of Team Bush granting the visas were somewhere between negligible and nil.

The Treasury spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise, stepped right up to the plate. She told The New York Times in an e-mail message that any "activities or contracts that could result in financial flows" to Fidel Castro and his regime "would effectively work against the objective of the sanctions and be inconsistent with current U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba."

The amen corner of the Congress–the Florida representatives who represent the ever-shrinking population of wildly conservative Cuban exiles–pushed the Treasury hard to throw the Cubans out of the game before they ever got a chance to hear the National Anthem over the P.A. system.

Major League baseball promises to push back, but if experience is any guide, the Bush administration is shameless in its role as couturier to the political whims of the Miami Cubans. It’s hard to imagine the Cuban baseball team ever taking the field.

There are larger lessons here worth remembering.

First, our sanctions–meant to isolate Cuba, economically and diplomatically–are unilateral, and in a globalized economy that means they cannot work. Excluding Cuban baseball players would never have brought the Castro regime to its knees in 1959, and that is significantly less likely now.

I just returned from Cuba and what most Americans don’t know is how deeply invested other nations are in Cuba; they are busy doing business in Cuba and making contacts with average Cubans. The Spanish, the Canadians, and the Chinese are drilling for oil off Cuba’s coast, and paying the government millions of dollars in fees for the right to enter into joint ventures. A Spanish firm I visited at the Port of Havana is working with Cuba to build an enlarged container facility–and committing $140 million in private capital–betting on greater and greater growth in the Cuban economy over the next decade.

Venezuela is providing Cuba with 80,000 barrels of oil each day, with unusually favorable financing arrangements, which keeps the Cuban economy going during these days of high oil prices. Canada and China are paying big bucks to participate in joint ventures for the extraction of nickel. Israel is involved–in agriculture and hotels –and the list goes on and on.

All we are doing with our unilateral sanctions against Cuba is punishing Americans and average Cubans–punishing Cuban-American families who are denied the right to visit their kin on the island, punishing American companies who are forbidden to participate in Cuba’s recapitalization, and punishing American values. It was, after all, our contacts, our visitors, our goods, and our influence which are credited with helping win the day in Eastern Europe when the wall came down and those newly independent societies had to choose a future path for their governance and their people.

The Bush administration preaches the faith of economic engagement everywhere else on the planet. Cuba is the only exception. The world is there, and average Cubans appreciate the economic stimulus and the opportunity to meet new people traveling to their island.

Second, this decision on baseball neglects the universally recognized healing power of sport. Thirty years ago, when Richard Nixon sought to open China to the west, he capitalized on a development called “Ping Pong Diplomacy.” As the Smithsonian says, “Blending statecraft and sport, table tennis matches between American and Chinese athletes set the stage of Nixon’s breakthrough with the People’s Republic.”

In the 2004 Summer Games, North and South Korean athletes marched together into the Olympic Stadium behind a common flag at the opening ceremony in Athens. Cuban athletes deserve similar recognition, and our nation and Cuba would benefit a great deal from being able to pursue peaceful competition on the baseball field. Sport has a unique capacity to do this. You’d think the former owner of the Texas Rangers would understand this as well as anyone.

But President Bush prefers “boomerang diplomacy” to “ping-pong diplomacy.” He would much rather stop Cuban and U.S. athletes from playing baseball together to keep the archaic and ineffective embargo against Cuba intact, than risk exposing our fellow citizens to an aspect of Cuba they would never otherwise get a chance to see. America gets nothing from punishing Cuba; the administration simply makes Castro’s ideological case against us: we end up isolated and looking unsportsmanlike all at the same time.