Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

War in Iran, a Gold Mine in the Making

By Circles Robinson

When I was a little kid growing up in the USA I used to go into my grandfather’s office where he told me more than once that war was good for business. I despised the concept and repudiated the idea even more years later as a teenager during the US war on Vietnam.

However, grandpa was right. In the United States, wars are fought in somebody else’s country, but manufacturing the bombs, tanks, warplanes, artillery, ships, uniforms, and food rations, is a trillion dollar business. While it is the corporate elite who reap the gigantic profits, well over a million working and middle-class US citizens are dependant on an active war machine.

The United States is currently involved in multiple large-scale wars abroad and despite momentary dips the Dow Jones Stock Exchange average has steadily risen. It is now around 75 percent higher than when the war on Iraq began in March 2003.

Meanwhile, Iraqis, the supposed beneficiaries of the US-led invasion and occupation, see a very different picture. Repeated opinion polls show a vast majority agree the “liberation” mission has made things worse.

The US media reports as bad news the death of more Pentagon soldiers or contractors and the destruction of military hardware. However, behind the closed doors of corporate boardrooms the reports are seen in dollars and cents.

Every uniform ripped apart, every bullet shot, every bomb dropped, every Humvee charred, every crashing chopper is something to be replaced and in some cases upgraded. And in this game, the suppliers name their price and the government passes the bill on to the taxpayers.

It’s a no-lose situation for CEOs, as virtually none of their sons and daughters nor those of Congress members go to war or come home in flag-draped coffins.

None of their homes or public utilities are destroyed, none of their fields poisoned. None of their children die or lose limbs from playing with unexploded ordinances or suffer decades of consequences from high levels of radiation.


Five key ingredients characterized the period preceding when George W. Bush and his top brass were preparing to launch the fated attack on Iraq.

First was the determination to go to war and President George W. Bush and his associates had longed to finish a job begun by George H. with the Gulf War in 1991 and gain control of the country’s oil production and reserves.

Secondly, alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and a supposed link between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were the pretexts that were hammered into public opinion on a non-stop basis.

The third factor was Washington declaring the 12-years of UN sanctions and its trail of severe hardship on the Iraqi population insufficient to stop Hussein from developing WMD.

During the month preceding the attack an unprecedented military buildup took place in the area, the fourth ingredient.

Then, days before Washington unloaded its cluster and bunker buster bombs using depleted uranium on Baghdad, the State Department issued its courtesy “get out or else” calls to friendly foreign embassies there, leaving others to take the hint. By the time ancient buildings were turned to rubble only the Cuban, Vatican and Russian embassies remained.

Many now fear that attacking Iran will be the next stimulus to US business.

Plans for attacking Iraq’s neighbor have been on the table at Pentagon strategy rooms for a long time; although State and Defense Department spokespersons still deny that they are contemplating military action. Nonetheless, the five steps used before attacking Iraq are being applied in Iran.

The longing to control Iran and its oil and gas reserves dates back to 1979 when the US-backed dictator —installed with a coup in 1953— was overthrown by an Islamic Revolution and an embarrassing hostage scene at the US embassy that lasted 444 days and probably cost Jimmy Carter his reelection.

The pretexts for going to war have been in place for months. The US accuses Iran of wanting to develop nuclear weapons and of aiding the resistance movement in Iraq.

The current spat with Tony Blair, over 15 intruding British marines in Iranian waters, reminds one of the pretexts for Israel’s 2006 attacks on Lebanon and Palestine, supposedly over a few captured soldiers. Like in Iraq, Bush will want Blair to join an eventual attack.

The new sanctions approved on March 24 to hurt the Iranian economy and development plans are unacceptable to Iran, just as the UN Security Council played into the US hand with unacceptable demands on Hussein’s Iraq.

President Mahmoud Ahmainejad said the sanctions violate Iran’s “legal and inalienable rights” to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as dozens of countries around the globe. The 118-member Non-Aligned Movement currently chaired by Cuba supports that right.

Curiously, the original idea for Iran to diversify with nuclear energy came from the United States which sold the Shah a reactor back in 1959.

To many analysts it is a foregone conclusion that the White House will soon proclaim the sanctions ineffective as justification for tougher action with or without UN consent.

Independent of Congress, a troop and military hardware buildup has already occurred in recent months and continues in an effort to increase the Pentagon’s firepower and troop strength in the region. Israel, the region’s nuclear power, is also poised to get involved if Washington so desires.

The final prelude to war has yet to occur. Hopefully it will never come. Numerous foreign embassies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas are still operating normally in Iran. However, the tension is mounting and Iran watchers are on the lookout for signs that an aggression is near.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Iraq is like Detroit or Chicago, says US Rep.

By Circles Robinson

Tim Walberg, a Republican legislator from Michigan, stated this week that most of war-torn Iraq is about as dangerous as some neighborhoods in Detroit or Chicago.

The first term Congressman who grew up in Chicago made the comment to support the Bush administration’s claim that progress is being made in a war the President says can be won.

"Well, in fact, in many places Iraq is as safe and cared for as Detroit or Harvey, Ill., or some other places that have trouble with armed violence that takes place on occasion," Walberg told the press.

"People are walking around communities [in Iraq] as safe as they are walking around - at the very least - in Detroit and Chicago and other places," he said. "As in any major city, there are hot zones, as in the country of Iraq...”

Walberg’s spokesperson Matt Lahr furthered the comparison with Iraq. "Soldiers have expressed optimism to the Congressman about the safety and security of the majority of Iraq."

Ban Ki Moon Experiences Iraq Safety

The day after Walberg made his comparison the new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon got his first taste of the urban USA in Iraq. Explosions ripped Baghdad while he was giving a press conference.

The Green Zone, which Walberg would perhaps compare to “safe” suburbs like Grosse Point Park in metro Detroit or Chicago’s North Shore, came under mortar fire that visibly startled Ban Ki-Moon and made him rush for cover.

"A mortar landed and went off 100 meters away in an open field outside the compound where the press conference was being held," said U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe.

Ban Ki-Moon had arrived in the Iraqi capital Thursday morning on an unannounced visit, his first to the embattled country since taking the UN Secretary General post in January.

He probably won’t be visiting Walberg’s Detroit or Chicago in the near future.

The UN chief praised the United Nations efforts “to help the Iraqi people through various means including humanitarian, economic and political facilitation.”

However, the South Korean admitted that UN activities have been limited, “largely because of the situation on the ground.” He did not say if a similar aid effort would be made in the urban United States slums.

Cuba-US, the Perfect Prisoner Swap

By Circles Robinson

While the Bush administration and the Cuban government don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, there is more than Gulf of Mexico oil drilling deals that could be beneficial to both, even without lifting the time-worn US blockade against its neighbor.

There are currently 59 prisoners in Cuba who were on the US payroll to carry out activities to destabilize the island. Cuban State Security closed in on them when their actions were intensifying and they were arrested on March 18, 2003.

Working for the enemy is not taken lightly in Cuba. The following month they were tried and received stiff sentences up to 27 years in prison. Of the original 75 prisoners, 16 were later released for health reasons, and the rest remain in prison.

These prisoners are considered heroes by their patrons in Washington, who call them “dissidents.” Inside the US Interests Section in Havana there is a mural with pictures and information on them. A Christmas lights display with the number 75 in the front yard of the US Interests Section demanded their release back in 2005.

The Bush administration has made their case a top priority in its attacks on Cuba and the European Union has also chimed in to plead for their freedom.

A dozen or so wives of the prisoners dress in white and parade down Fifth Avenue in Havana’s Miramar district on most Sundays demanding their husband’s release.

Household Names in Cuba

Meanwhile, in the US, five Cubans continue in prison after eight and a half years for the “crime” of uncovering terrorist plots against the island being planned in Miami under the complacent eye of US authorities.

Havana had made available to the White House the sensitive information gathered by “Los Cinco” —known internationally as the “Cuban Five.” However, the FBI proceeded to arrest the informers instead of the terrorists.

Detained in 1998 and convicted in a politically charged Miami courtroom in 2001 for conspiracy and failing to register as foreign agents, the Cuban Five were sentenced to harsh terms ranging from 15 years to double life imprisonment.

To make their imprisonment even crueler, the Cubans faced long periods of solitary confinement and their family visits, supposedly guaranteed by US law, have been hampered at best and denied at worst.

Back home the Cuban Five are never far from most peoples thoughts.

One day five jets doing air acrobatics flew over my apartment and made a loop over the Caribbean coast. My five-year-old grandson piped up from the balcony with a big smile, “They are ‘Los Cinco’. They escaped from prison and have returned to Cuba.”

I was amused but not totally surprised, the Cuban Five have name recognition here nearly on the par with Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, or the country’s national here Jose Marti. Their images are all over on posters, calendars, billboards and on TV.

However, the boy’s remark struck a chord and I began to dream…

The Win-Win Deal

In step with its concern for the “dissidents,” Washington would surely consider alternatives to get them released.

One possibility would be to offer Havana a prisoner swap whereby the United States would send the Cuban Five home and on the same plane take the 59 “dissidents” to Miami where they would receive a hero’s welcome from Governor Jeb Bush, a handful of Cuban exile groups and their followers.

The Bush administration could also offer the ladies in white a seat on the same plane to join their husbands for a slice of the American way of life.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Five —Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and Rene Gonzalez— would rejoin their families, and finally get on with their lives.

Such a deal would make a lot of people happy on both sides of the Florida Straits, providing a precious, momentary lapse in what appears to be a never-ending diplomatic stalemate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bush-Chavez Tours Seen from Cuba

By Circles Robinson

When President Bush set out on his five-nation tour of Latin America on Thursday March 8th he was hoping to obtain support for Washington’s effort to isolate Venezuela and tighten its stranglehold on Cuba.

However, once he touched down in Brazil, and later Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico it became apparent that he is virtually alone on the issue. Instead, most of the region wants to maintain or increase ties with Cuba and Venezuela.

Fidel Castro’s active participation by telephone in a three-way meeting with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Haiti’s Rene Preval on Tuesday let more air out of the White House balloon.

“Fidel was very keen to make sure the trilateral cooperation succeeds,” Preval told a news conference. The three countries agreed to $21 million dollars of funding from Venezuela to extend medical programs carried out by Cuban doctors in rural Haiti.

Cat-and-Mouse Ends in Haiti and Mexico

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and US President George W. Bush ended their parallel trips in Haiti and Mexico respectively after a cat-and-mouse stalking around Latin America and the Caribbean that both claimed was unintentional.

Before Chavez’ last stop in Port-au-Prince he signed new accords in Argentina to further the Bank of the South project and found the South American Organization of Gas Exporting Producers; in Bolivia for mining, telecommunications, hydrocarbons, and lumber, tourism and cement production projects; and in Nicaragua, to build a large oil refinery.

In Jamaica, he invited Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to jump on the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas bandwagon that promotes regional integration via mutually beneficial trade and improved social programs instead of corporate profit. The prime minister noted the already existing cooperation with Venezuela on PetroCaribe and said her country would carefully study the offer.

Chavez poked fun at Bush’s belated recognition of conditions on the continent. “He thinks he is Columbus, discovering poverty after seven years in power,” scoffed Chavez.

Bush Tour Backfires

The trip of US President George W. Bush to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico was the best opinion poll that money could buy. Although the leaders he visited have widely divergent political leanings, the real barometer of support for his policies was out on the streets.

Bush was cordially received by Presidents Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Tabare Vasquez (Uruguay), Alvaro Uribe (Colombia), Oscar Berger (Guatemala) and Felipe Calderon (Mexico).
Worried about his security and not wanting to upset protocol, the US president’s hosts did everything possible to keep him out of sight and voice range of the massive demonstrations that rejected his presence.

High metal security barriers, hovering helicopters, barricades and thousands of tear gas shooting and baton-wielding riot police were some of the many security precautions that had to be taken to protect President Bush at each leg of his trip.

Several US reporters unfamiliar with the Latin American beat were taken aback by the “welcoming” for Bush. Their colleagues following Chavez couldn’t help but note the opposite reaction the Venezuelan leader received.

In Colombia, where President Uribe is considered firmly in the Bush camp, demonstrations took place in some 20 cities and riot police attacked protestors at Bogota’s National University and several were injured. US flags reportedly sold like hot cakes, but for burning during demonstrations instead of ceremonial flying. The same occurred days later in Mexico.

The New York Times noted that the US has spent 4.7 billion dollars, the lion’s share in military assistance, to prop up the Colombian government since 2000 and the administration is proposing another 3.9 billion through 2014.

In Guatemala, workers protested the recent round-up of some 300 Guatemalans in Massachusetts. The factory workers were jailed and cruelly separated from their young children. A plea by President Oscar Berger to Bush for clemency to avoid their deportation was met with a cold shoulder.

The US president said, “It’s very important for the people of South America and Central America to know that the United States cares deeply about the human condition,” but he let Berger know that enforcing the law is above any pandering to illegal immigrants.

In Brazil, Bush told a press conference: “I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives.” However, an ongoing request from Lula to end US trade barriers on his country’s exports, including the high tariff on ethanol, has received a flat no.

The combination of a free reign for US corporations in the region and US subsidies and tariffs to keep out key Latin American export products is widely considered part of the reason why poverty has dramatically increased over the last two decades.

In Uruguay, President Tabare Vasquez whisked Bush out of sight to the Estancia Anchorena retreat near the border with Argentina. Bush relaxed in the rural setting, and the two presidents avoided discussing any burning issues, like US farm subsidies and Uruguay’s steadfast opposition to the US war in Iraq.

To avoid TV images of the anti-Bush protests in Montevideo and nearby Buenos Aires, the two presidents had a barbeque lunch and took a boat ride on the La Plata River.

In Mexico, his last stop, Bush had nothing new to offer in response to a request for a more friendly immigration policy and an end to the 700-mile “Berlin Wall” —as President Felipe Calderon calls it— being built on the border. Calderon said his country seeks a relationship with the US of “mutual respect.”

Bush said he hopes Congress will pass his guest worker program, but Calderon maintained that the only way to keep Mexicans from immigrating north “is to generate jobs for Mexicans here in Mexico.”

President Bush was scheduled to fly Air Force One back to the US on Wednesday afternoon. He is now expected to leave behind the region where he came up empty handed, and focus on his battle on Capitol Hill for more funding and more troops for his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Laying the ground work for a possible attack on Iran also appears high on the administration’s agenda.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

No Medals for Agustin Aguayo

By Circles Robinson

Doing the right thing can be costly, but in the end one can at least sleep at night.

Ask Spc. Agustin Aguayo, 35, a U.S. citizen born in Guadalajara, Mexico, who was just sentenced by a US military court in Wurzburg, Germany.

His crime was a gut feeling shared by a growing number of ordinary citizens and soldiers alike: President Bush’s war in Iraq isn’t their war.

His conscientious objector (CO) status denied on appeal, Aguayo went absent without leave, or AWOL, last September before a second deployment to Iraq. He had been told he would be taken there in shackles if necessary.

The medic was given a bad conduct discharge, sentenced to eight months in a military prison and stripped of his pay. It could have been worse, as he faced a possible seven years in jail.

Agustin Aguayo says that when he first joined the Army in 2002, he still believed in the US government and he never expected to be in the news. On Tuesday, he was once again a top story as he was convicted for refusing to kill people he doesn’t know and who have done nothing to him, his family or his country.

In an interview with Democracy Now, before he turned himself in last year, Agustin Aguayo said: “It's not my job to decide who's going to live or who's going to die. That's something that I’ve had to deal with morally and that I’m convinced of. Nothing is clearer in my mind that war is wrong. And I won't be a tool of war anymore.”

Aguayo had applied for CO status before his first deployment in February 2004 but that was rejected.

At the time he felt killing was wrong. But according to his wife, Helga Aguayo, it wasn’t until he was in Iraq and read a book on its history that came in a care package “that he realized that the war has essentially been created for the personal gain of a few people.”

In an excellent interview by Gillian Russom titled “The Court Martial of Agustin Aguayo,” Helga added: “What he told me was that for a few corporations, it's in their best interests to keep the chaos going in Iraq.”

“When my husband enlisted, we were very ignorant. We had both graduated from college and had no idea about history or the military. Now, our eyes are wide open,” Helga Aguayo told Russom.

“In the movies, Hollywood glamorizes the military and makes them look like such heroes, but when he started training, he realized, ‘I'm training to kill people,’" added Helga.

Camilo Mejia, a young Nicaraguan born US solider, was another similar case. Mejia’s wake up call came in Iraq and he wasn’t about to go back on a second deployment. He has since dedicated himself to speaking out against the war.

If Aguayo and Mejia and the thousands like them that have left their posts, or refused to deploy in Iraq, knew what they were getting into beforehand they may have never enlisted.

Recruitment officers promises of money for college, fast track citizenship, or “to be somebody” lose ground when a young person comprehends the cruelty of taking part in an unjust war against a civilian population.

However, once they are on board the pressures on them are intense and it takes real courage to fly in the face of them as Aguayo and Mejia did.

While so called deserters may find themselves with fewer options in a society where education and decent employment are a privilege, at least they can sleep at night.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Fidel Castro Talks, the Media Jumps

Cuban President Fidel Castro crashed his own media funeral and now has the corporate press at his beck and call. Recovering from intestinal surgery last July, Fidel is calling all the shots.

The mainstream media swallowed hook and sinker the first declarations of “wishful thinking” about his health from supposedly “in the know” Bush administration officials and representatives of Miami Vice [not squad].

Now they are obligated to give front page space every time he takes part in a televised or audio conversation. The Cuban leader, who is no spring chicken at 80, said months ago that he would undergo a slow recovery that would take him out of public life until further notice.

Vice President Raul Castro took over the day-to-day helm but he and other top Cuban officials have repeatedly said Fidel keeps up-to-date on all important matters and works the phones to get his concerns across.

Each time Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close friend and intellectual counterpart of Castro, visits or speaks with Fidel it becomes a top international news story.

For the majority of Cubans who are accustomed to their president and hope he returns to public life, the emotional and informational exchanges with Chavez are a feel good pill.

In their half hour phone conversation on Tuesday, broadcast live on Venezuelan TV and radio on Chavez’ “Alo, Presidente” program, the two leaders embraced with words and discussed the major issues facing their nations and the world.

Castro sounded lively and the media contemplated a fuller comeback than expected. The two presidents spoke about the recently announced expanded Venezuelan–Cuban cooperation that in 2007 will include 1.5 billion dollars in projects.

They also discussed one of their favorite issues, energy, and Chavez spoke of his intention to set up a joint venture with Vietnam to manufacture energy-saving light bulbs and suggested that Cuba could also take part. “I think that sounds wonderful,” answered Fidel.

Cuba and Venezuela will join forces to build nearly a dozen ethanol plants to make fuel alcohol out of sugar cane. However, the two leaders were quick to state their strong opposition to the use of grains like soy or corn for that purpose because it would drive up food prices in a world where billions go hungry.

Another topic was President Bush’s upcoming trip to Mexico and several Latin American countries. Chavez told Fidel, “You know that we are a preparing a welcoming in South America.”

The two leaders spoke on the anniversary of the 1989 “Caracazo” upheaval in Caracas, and Chavez recalled the causes of that event, “the plundering of the country, capital flight, privatizations, inflation accompanied by a terrible recession, unemployment and a breakdown of even the middle class.”

Fidel said he feels more energetic and is taking advantage of his private time to do a lot of reading, a passion the Cuban leader shares with Chavez, who like Fidel, is known for burning the midnight oil.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

When Cuba’s Baseball Came of Age

By Circles Robinson

Baseball fans in Cuba, and there are a lot of them, are currently fixated on the close races in the 2006-7 regular season which has just over 20 games to go, but memories of last year’s World Baseball Classic are still fresh.

On March 3, 2006 the first World Baseball Classic began in Tokyo; 17 days later in San Diego, California it was indeed the Japanese team that had won the tournament defeating the Cuba “mystery” team 10-6 in the final game.

Along the way the United States, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic —with their rosters packed with multi-millionaire Major Leaguers— had fallen in hard fought games that had kept baseball fans around the world on edge.

Both Cuba and Japan had been long shots to make it to the finals and they proved that top notch baseball is not only played in the US Major Leagues. From the beginning, Cuba had said it would go with its national amateur squad and would not be asking Cuban-born Major Leaguers that live in the United States to play with the team.

President Fidel Castro had stated, “Cuba will play well, even though they have stolen many of our good players.”


Havana residents joke that most people have two jobs: One is getting to and from work, and the other the job itself. Getting to the WBC proved no exception for the Cubans.

The Bush administration’s dogged attempt to block the island from participating almost ruined the long awaited tournament. The pretext was a Treasury Department clause in the nearly half century US blockade on Cuba that prohibits any transfer of funds to the island’s government.

In a bold move the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation, one of the tournaments hosts, threatened to pull out if Cuba wasn’t allowed to play. The International Olympic Committee also made it known that the administration’s obsession with Cuba could cost it the venue to host any future Olympic Games.

Cuba then chipped in by offering to donate any prize money it won to Hurricane Katrina victims. The offer was not just symbolic. Within hours of when the hurricane struck in August 2005, Cuba had decked out a fully equipped medical brigade of over 1,500 doctors it offered to send for as long as needed.

Finally, only weeks before the Classic was to begin, the Bush administration caved in after a last ditch appeal by the WBC organizers including the Major League Players Association. It was play ball!

The reaction from Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh couldn’t have been more prophetic. “I am glad. Now the top class will be participating. If Cuba doesn’t take part, the WBC wouldn’t be anything,” said Japan’s all-time leading homerun hitter.


Before the Classic began many US sportswriters had questioned Cuba’s victories in the Olympics and World Cup Baseball tournament because Major Leaguers don’t take part. Could the Cubans compete with “the best that money can buy?” Many asked how good the “mystery team” really was.”

Even at Havana’s Central Park, where a daily baseball debate takes place among hardened fanatics and whoever wants to join in, expectations were divided as to whether Cuba’s best could compete.

In fact, it was noted by many that it wasn’t a particularly good year for the island’s top pitchers with several nursing injuries, raising doubts if they could contain the likes of Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran. Most agreed that making it to the second round of play in the 16-team event would be a major accomplishment.

Cuba’s games were all broadcast live on national television and most of the other WBC games were also shown.

When the tournament ended and Cuba finished second it was entitled to 7 percent of the reported 15 million dollars in profits, just over a million dollars. However, no detailed report was released on what the organizers did with the money, although 1.2 million was reportedly donated to Habitat for Humanity to build 16 homes in the Gulf Region.


Big hearted pitching by Yadel Marti, Pedro Luis Lazo, Vicyoandri Odelin, Adiel Palma and Ormari Romero and key defensive plays in the 7th inning against Puerto Rico in Round Two and in the 6th inning against the Dominican Republic in the Semifinals were proof that Cuba’s baseball had come of age.

Designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo (.480 batting average), second baseman Yulieski Gourriel (8 runs scored and excellent fielding) and Pitcher Yadel Marti (12.2 scoreless innings) made the all-WBC team along with three Japanese players including Daisuke Matsuzaka the tournament’s MVP with three victories. The other standouts were three Koreans including first baseman Seung Yeop Lee who blasted five home runs, Dominican third baseman Adrian Beltre (9 RBIs) and shortstop Derek Jeter from team USA who hit .450.


Everyone said Cuba needed to win its Round One opening game against Panama and it wasn’t easy. Cuba blew a 6-4 lead and almost lost in the bottom of the ninth only to win 8-6 in the 11th inning on RBI hits by Yoandry Garlobo, the tournament’s second leading hitter, and Frederich Cepeda.

While an easy 11-2 romp over the Netherlands was assuring Cuba a ticket to Round Two, US anti-Cuba politics got in the way with provocateurs raising degrading signs behind home plate behind ever pitch. The attempt to mar the sporting event appeared to have the support of police and security agents who went so far as to place guards alongside the provocateurs to protect them from fans who disapproved of the attempt to smear Cuba and mix politics with sports.

With the possibility of a Cuba pull out from the tournament the local fans made a ruckus and San Juan public opinion ran high against the provocations. By the next game the matter had been settled.

Politics aside, Cuba then had to face Puerto Rico and its all Major League lineup including Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Javy Lopez.

Even though both teams had already qualified for Round Two, the game proved to be a humbling experience as Cuba lost 12-2, ending a 19 game winning streak in international competition. Once again the issue of whether the Cuban team was on the par with their Major League counterparts came into question, especially the pitching.

ROUND TWO grouped Korea, Japan, United States and Mexico in Group A to be played in Anaheim, California and Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Cuba comprised Group B to play in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Two teams in each group would qualify for the semifinals in San Diego.

Play began for Cuba against Venezuela, the island’s biggest trade partner and political ally, but that had nothing to do with playing against a team laden with players that had left the South American country to play in the US Major Leagues.

The task was awesome with Venezuela starting lefthander Johan Santana (Cy Young Award winner in 2006 with 19 wins, 245 strikeouts and 2.77 ERA for Minnesota) against Industriales right-hander Yadel Marti.

A second inning double by designated hitter Yoandry Garlobo and a two out RBI single by first baseman Ariel Borrero put Cuba ahead 1-0, a lead they would never relinquish against a team boasting a $103 million dollar payroll.

Marti combined his slider, breaking and off-speed pitches to hold Venezuelan batters hitless during the first four innings. When he flinched in the fifth, giving up two singles, the Cuban manager Higinio Velez didn’t hesitate to bring in hard throwing right-hander Pedro Luis Lazo. The veteran got off to a bad start bobbling a bunt that loaded the bases with nobody out. Cuba was deep in trouble.

However, the towering Lazo got Endy Chavez and all-star shortstop Omar Vizquel to hit flies to short left, too shallow for the runner on third to tag. But the threat wasn’t over as Carlos Guillen stepped into the batters box with the bases still loaded. Lazo struck him out with a 97 MPH fastball allowing Velez and millions of fans back home to take a long deep breath.

Johan Santana recovered well after giving up the initial run but the roof caved in for Venezuela when Giovanny Carrara came in to pitch the sixth with Cuba scoring five topped by a three run homer by Frederich Cepeda. While Venezuela got two runs on a homer by Endy Chavez in the seventh, Lazo turned up the heat and retired seven of the last eight batters to complete a memorable 5-inning save.

“Two days ago when Puerto Rico beat Cuba, everyone said we were already out of the tournament," said an elated Lazo, "But Cuba is not gone. Cuba is still here to play, and whoever wants to beat her will really have to sweat it out.”

However, there were still miles to go to make to the semifinals as Cuba would still have to beat the Dominican Republic, the tournament’s Las Vegas and London co-favorites along with the United States, or Puerto Rico.

And it wasn’t going to be the Dominican Republic. When you give up eight walks, hit two batters, commit a balk, allow nine hits, make two fielding errors, and bat into three double plays, winning the game is pretty much out of the question.

Cuba lost 7-3 but there was a fleeting moment of hope after being down 7-0 in the sixth. In the ninth inning Cuba loaded the bases with two out with the tying run at the plate in pinch hitter Juan Carlos Pedroso. The Dominicans fourth reliever Fernando Rodney put an end to all that with a called third strike.


This left Cuba with one alternative beat Puerto Rico playing in San Juan to 20,000 fans or head home to Havana.

It was a tense game from the onset, nothing like the Puerto Rico’s romp in Round One. Dicky Gonzalez, who had hog tied Cuba days before, once again got the call and Ormari Romero was asked to try and stop the hard-hitting Puerto Ricans.

Cuba got a run in the top of the first on two walks and a couple sacrifice grounders but Puerto Rico got even with a leadoff one-swing blast into the bleachers by Bernie Williams. Cuba was back on the boards in the fourth when Gonzales ran into big trouble allowing two hits and a walk to load the bases with one out with shortstop Eduardo Paret at the plate.

Jose Oquendo, the Puerto Rican manager, gave Dicky the hook and brought in Jose Santiago who hit Paret to force in a run. Then it looked like Santiago was going to hold Cuba to a 2-1 lead after getting Yoandry Garlobo to hit into a force play at home and Yulieski Gourriel hit a routine grounder to short, but a throwing error by Alex Citron allowed two runs to score putting Cuba ahead 4-1.

Romero settled down allowing only two hits through the fourth when he was relieved by lefthander Adiel Palma who worked in and out of trouble into the seventh before giving way to Yunieski Maya with runners on first and third and nobody out. Puerto Rico got its second run on a fielder’s choice and a close call at second that irked the usually well mannered Higinio Velez, who was tossed out of the game.

Bernie Williams, who had homered in the first, stepped up against Maya with two on and still nobody out. An excellent double play from Gourriel to Paret to Borrero was followed by a walk making it runners on first and third with two out and the score 4-2.

Carlos Beltran then lined deep to center driving in Puerto Rico’s third run. All-star catcher Ivan Rodriguez tried to score from first, hoping to tie the score, but was gunned down on a relay throw from Carlos Tabares to Yulieski Gourriel to Ariel Pestano. It was a classy play against a gutsy player and the scoring was over at 4-3.

After a double play got him out of a jam in the eighth Cuban reliever Vicyohandri Odelín grew tall in the ninth forcing Bernie Williams into hit a foul pop-up and striking out Ivan Rodriguez to end the game. It was an amazing win for Cuba and a shocking loss for Puerto Rico.

After the game, the Cuban and Puerto Rican players hugged on the field in an emotional end to an action packed game and posed with each other for snapshots they themselves took to have as memories of a fantastic tournament.


So now it was off to San Diego, California for the semifinals against the Dominican Republic while Japan would face Korea in the other match up.

When the Cuban team plays abroad the players are routinely hounded by agents trying to make a big buck by convincing the island’s players to give up their country for multi-million dollar contracts. There was much expectation as to what would happen and the sportswriters speculated on what players would decide to take offers.

And so it was on March 18 before 41,000 fans in San Diego that Cuba played the Dominican Republic which had beaten them 7-3 in Round Two. The game proved to be another cliff hanger but once again the amateurs proved to be on the par with a team with a $151 million dollar payroll.

American League 2005 Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon (14 million dollar salary) got the call for the Dominicans, while Cuba decided to give the ball to Yadel Marti.

Colon was impossible to score on during six innings but so was Marti who stymied the all-star Dominican lineup on his breaking pitches into the fifth with only three hits, before giving way to Pedro Luis Lazo.

The Dominicans scored the game’s first run in the bottom of the sixth on a costly two out throwing error by second baseman Yulieski Gourriel. But it could have been much worse. With two on and nobody out Lazo had to face Albert Pujols (49 homers and 137 RBIs in 2006), David Ortiz (54 homers and 137 RBIs) and Adrian Beltre (25 HRs and 87 RBIs).

After Pujols hit into a fielder’s choice, Ortiz hit a sharp grounder to the right side of second base for what should have been a single. However, shortstop Eduardo Paret had virtually guessed where Ortiz would be hitting and had abandoned his normal position to be at the right place at the right time. “I think that if the ball Ortiz hit would have gone through, the ballgame would have changed,” said Albert Pujols after the game.

The Dominicans’ 1-0 lead didn’t last long as the Cuban offense came alive for a 4-hit three run seventh inning on RBIs from Frederich Cepeda, Osmani Urrutia and Alexei Ramirez.

The Dominicans last big threat came in the eighth and threat it was. With one out and two runners on, once again David Ortiz stepped into the batters box against Lazo. Sweating up a storm but calm under the collar, Lazo got Ortiz to fly to right and Adrian Beltre followed with a liner to Cepeda in left to end the inning. Final score Cuba 3 Dominican Republic 1.

After the game Albert Pujols told a Major League Baseball writer, “Lazo made some good pitches and threw a good slider on me, and he just came right at us.” Pujols added: “There is no more talking, no more excuses. They played good baseball and beat us.”

Dominican manger Manny Acta told MLB: “I can see why Cuba dominated the international competition. Their pitching is legit. They can throw guys out there every single day that can pitch in the big leagues. Their pitching is legit, and that’s why they beat us.”

Pedro Luis Lazo, the man that frustrated the Dominican stars in the later innings, told the press: “For all of us, it has been a matter of great pride to play against teams of this caliber. They are very good teams even though they’re not in the finals.”


When two days later Cuba played the WBC final game against Japan some would say the team just ran out of gas after so many dramatic games. But that would be unfairly selling Japan short. Both teams have met often in international competition and know each other’s style and Japan also had to fight extremely hard to make it to the finals defeating previously undefeated Korea in the semifinals 6-0.

The Cuban manager may have made one of his few WBC mistakes be starting a right hander against a line up stacked with a majority of left handed hitters. The Japanese mix of lightning speed and power as well as clutch pitching also proved a difficult match.

With practically everyone in Cuba watching the game, at home, bars, and big screens set up in parks the first inning seemed endless. When it was over, Japan had jumped off to a 4-0 lead and Cuba was already with its third pitcher. By the fifth Japan widened its lead to 6-1 with hard-throwing right hander Daisuke Matsuzaka breezing for the Asians.

Cuba finally began to chip away at the big Japanese lead scoring twice against submarine reliever Shunsuke Watanabe in the sixth on an error and three hits.

With southpaw Adiel Palma keeping the Japanese bats in check between the fifth and eighth, Cuba got within a run in the bottom of the eighth on a two run homer by Frederich Cepeda. Suddenly the runaway was 6-5 and millions of fans on the island had come alive.

But Japan’s star closer Akinori Otsuka was brought in to put out the fire and that’s exactly what he did, ending the eighth with two outs in a blink of an eye. Cuba would have one more chance.

However, the top of the ninth proved similar to the top of the first, and Japan took a 10-5 lead, scoring four runs on four hits and two walks against four Cuban pitchers in another seemingly endless inning. The writing was on the wall and Otsuka finished the job by striking out Michel Enriquez and Yulieski Gorriel after giving up a run on a double by catcher Ariel Pestano and an RBI hit by Paret to make it 10-6, the final score.

Baseball in Cuba a Year after the Classic

A year after the Classic, the Cuban baseball league is nearing the end of its 46th regular Season since the triumph of the 1959 revolution. It is here where Major League quality baseball is played without the financial incentive. A total of 16 teams play 90 games to compete for eight slots in the best of five quarterfinals followed by the semifinal and final playoff games, both in best-of-seven series.

On March 1, last year’s champions, Industriales (38-29), who play out of the Latin American Stadium in the capital, were 2.5 games behind Sancti Spiritus (41-27) in Group B, closely followed by Habana (38-30), whose stadium is in Havana Province.

Group A is a walk with Pinar del Rio 10 games out in front of the Isle of Youth. Group C, is hotly contested between Ciego de Avila (38-30), which jumped off to a good size lead with a ten game winning streak early in the year, Villa Clara (38-30), Las Tunas (37-30) and Camaguey (36-32). Group D is led easily by last season’s runner ups, Santiago de Cuba (42-26), six games ahead of Granma.

Each night during the season one of the baseball games is televised on national TV. Furthermore, stadium prices range from 4 to 12 cents of a US dollar and good match ups draw big turnouts. Alcoholic beverages are not sold at Cuban stadiums but the conga drums and cornets liven up the spirited fans some of whom carry on loud one-way conversations with the players, not hesitating to praise or criticize their performance.

This seasons individual leaders as of Feb. 27 were Isle of Youth third baseman Michel Enriquez (.405 batting average); Yohenis Cespedes of Granma with 59 runs scored; Jorge Padron of Pinar del Rio with 94 hits; Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas) and Juan Carlos Linares (Habana) with 15 home runs, and Juan Carlos Linares with 56 RBIs.

Norberto Gonzalez (Cienfuegos) and Wilber Perez (Isle of Youth) lead the league with 10 victories, Ciro Silvino Lica with a 1.18 ERA, Jonder Martinez (Habana) with three shutouts; Adiel Palma (Cienfuegos) 81 strikeouts, and Vladimir Garcia (Ciego de Avila) with 12 saves.

Pedro Luis Lazo of Pinar del Rio won his 222nd career game and is 9-5 for the season.
The next important international competition for the Cuban national baseball team will be the Pan American Games this coming July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While the US won’t send its Major League players because of financial reasons, and the Venezuelans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans will not have many of their top players available for the same reason; the Cuban national team will be on hand to give as good a show as money can’t buy.

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