Editor's note: President Trump's administration recently canceled an agreement between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have helped Cuban baseball players leave their country to play Major League Baseball. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tn.) weighs in on the decision in an Op-Ed to Sports Illustrated.
President Trump’s decision to block Cuban baseball players from joining MLB is a major setback for both of our nations and a great disappoint for me as a baseball fan and a Member of Congress who has long supported lifting the embargo. I worked alongside President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to create a stronger relationship with Cuba, and I was proud to join President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba in 2016. During this trip we attended a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban All-Star team and saw firsthand how much America’s pastime meant to the Cuban people.
Throughout our fraught history, baseball has brought us together. People-to-people contact is a tremendous step toward understanding each other’s cultures, and sports serve as a universal language, bridging cultural, racial and political divides.
As a five-year-old child stricken with polio, I attended a Chicago White Sox exhibition game in Memphis. Minnie Minoso, “the Cuban Comet,” spotted me at the game, standing with my crutches, and sent me a baseball via one of his white teammates.
At the time, the South was racially segregated, so Minnie did not feel comfortable approaching a white child. Minnie had the biggest heart on the baseball field and his kindness toward me began our lifelong friendship and engendered my fondness for Cuba and the Cuban people. This early lesson about civil rights influenced my life and career as a public servant.
Trump’s decision will prevent the next generation of American and Cuban baseball fans from having these kinds of experiences. He will also expose more Cuban baseball players to exploitation by human trafficking rings in their desperation to come to the United States. If we want Cuba to become more democratic, we need to create opportunities for cultural exchange between our two countries.
In addition to causing cultural damage, this decision highlights inconsistencies in our foreign policy. Trump cited the Cuban government’s support for Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro among his reasons for scrapping the deal and rolling back diplomatic efforts on the island, but he has not reacted similarly toward other foreign actors. Russia has established a large military presence in Venezuela, but the Trump Administration has issued no sanctions based on these actions. Kim Jong Un has voiced support for Maduro, but Trump is still seeking a bilateral peace agreement. Why should Cuba be treated in a much different fashion?
I urge President Trump to reconsider his anachronistic policy on Cuba. He should put America first by strengthening relations with Cuba to benefit American baseball, American businesses, and America’s image abroad. The Cuban people love baseball, they love American culture, and we should be providing them with opportunity rather than instituting arbitrary punishments.