By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – Maryland’s small Cuban community is divided over the Baltimore Orioles’ upcoming trip to Cuba.
For many, like Dr. Luis Queral of Baltimore, the games represent an unacceptable weakening of the U.S. government’s opposition to Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
“I feel like the state of Maryland is recognizing a dictator that does not respect human rights by dealing with him in this game,” said Queral, a retired surgeon who publishes the Hispanic newspaper El Mensajero.
But Enrique Conill of Columbia believes the games can only help U.S.-Cuban relations.
“Anything that reflects a good will, even if it’s not related directly to politics, it boils over” into improving relations, said Conill, a retired U.S. State Department employee.
The Orioles leave Saturday for a Sunday game in Havana, the first of two exhibition games against a Cuban team. A second game between the two teams will be played May 3 in Baltimore.
Cuban-Americans have protested the games in Florida, which is home to about two-thirds of the roughly 1 million Cuban-born people in the United States, according to census data.
Census officials said there were about 6,000 people of Cuban origin in Maryland. One of them is Estella Chavez of Towson, a secretary who came to the United States from Cuba 39 years ago.
“I don’t see what can be accomplished that would benefit the Cuban people with these games,” she said. “I can assure you that Fidel Castro is going to use them as public relations. He’s an expert on this kind of thing.”
Chavez said the Cubans she knows in Maryland oppose the games. Queral believes “about 90 percent” are opposed. Miguel Boluda of Bowie, president of the Cuban Club of Maryland, went further.
“I can say definitely that 95, 98 percent of the Cubans here feel that way,” he said.
Conill and Pedro Sierra, who directs a recreation center in Gaithersburg, agreed the community is divided, but they do not believe the sentiment against the game is so strong.
“I know many who are against the games and I know many who are for the games,” Conill said. “I’d say around here in the Baltimore area, probably … 50-50.”
Sierra said he believes many of the Cubans who say they are against the games are inwardly glad to see them happening.
“I’m pretty sure that inside you feel like, ‘Heck, Cuba still has some good baseball players’ … even though you might not be rooting for the Cuban team in front of everybody,” he said.
Several Maryland congressmen have voiced support for the games. Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville; Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore; and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Baltimore, recently spoke in favor of the games on the House floor.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, also said the games are a good idea. “It’s time to bypass Castro and reach out to the destitute Cuban people,” he said.
The Orioles take a similar position.
“We see this as basically a way to bring the two cultures together,” said team spokesman Bill Stetka. “Baseball is a passion in both countries, and it’s our belief that the politics are best left to others.”
Chavez and Queral said they do not blame the Orioles for wanting to reach out to Cuba.
“I am not blaming anyone but the Cuban government,” Queral said. For Orioles owner Peter Angelos, he said, organizing the games “was a gesture of friendship …. The majority of American citizens don’t know exactly what the Cuban situation is. They think that in good faith they can help Cuba.”
Chavez agreed. “It’s hard to point fingers,” she said. “It is hard for (Angelos) to understand why there is opposition.”
For Sierra, who played professional baseball in Cuba, the United States and four other countries, the sport transcends politics. He said he hopes to be in the front row at Camden Yards for the second game of the series.
“(Sports) can bring the poor and the rich, black and white and the political and non-political and the atheist and religious, all of those people will come together in the same spot to applaud the efforts of the athletes,” he said.