According to a bodybuilder who doubles as a nightclub promoter near La Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Maradona still frequents the “Bunny Bar” on a regular basis. The Bunny Bar, a greasy dive adorned with numerous Ronaldo jerseys that serves a half-decent Cuba Libre while blasting the hottest music videos of the 1990s, was the only place where I saw a football jersey, or even a reference to the sport, in Havana. While Alexander Abreu leads a 16-piece Havana D’Primera at La Casa de La Musica in a Mets jersey, you’re unlikely to walk the streets of Cuba and see the Latin American football culture common in countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina. During President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March of this year, he watched the Tampa Bay Rays, an American baseball team based in Florida, beat the Cuban national baseball team in a landmark game that attracted international attention.
Well, now it’s Jurgen’s turn to fly commercial to Cuba (commercial flights from several American cities to Cuba have been running since August) with the United States Men’s National Team for a game US Soccer has billed as “historic.” For the first time since 1947, the United States and Cuba will play in an international friendly on Cuban soil. The last American-Cuban match was that infamous American thumping at the Gold Cup, so this should be a fun match for Christian Pulisic to add fuel to the hype train. Outside a massive upset for the ages analogous to Hull winning the Champions League, the United States will be able to treat the game like a round-robin golazo showcase. If it’s not intended to be real match to test the USMNT before the Hex, is this “historic” Globetrotters game supposed to encourage Cuban-American relations? That suggestion, which has been made by US Soccer and hungry media outlets, is not only a naive fever-dream, but a relatively improbable ideal.
As the world’s sport, football/futból/soccer has been hailed as a uniter of nations and communities with socioeconomic and political reach on issues from women’s development to intrastate conflicts. Departments of state and diplomatic outlets have a habit of commending “football diplomacy” as a method of bridging divides or cooling tensions between hostile nations or communities. The 2010 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Turkey has been cited as an excellent example.
The 2010 World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Turkey has been cited as an excellent example. Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia since the country became independent in 1991, largely in opposition to the country’s efforts to gain international recognition of the Armenian genocide. After Turkey’s 2-0 victory, President Abdullah Gul visited Yerevan, an achievement remarked upon at the time as an historic event expected to ease tensions. While this football match was able to bring these two countries closer to diplomatic relations than ever before, less than a year later they returned to their state of tension. Football alone cannot facilitate change, but it did provide an avenue for these nations to unite behind for a short time.
American foreign policy experts have their own World Cup match they exploit as an example of soccer diplomacy that could have gone nuclear. The USMNT lost 2-1 to Iran in a 1998 World Cup group stage match that drew massive attention – both for the risks posed to spectators and the grand possibilities for easing relations between the two states. Instead of two communities divided by tensions that have dominated political debates for decades, fans gathered in the Stade de Gerland in Lyon to cheer their respective national teams. As a testament to the success of this match, the federations agreed to play a friendly match at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles 18 months later. If you ask former USMNT defender Jeff Agoos, the USMNT “did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years” by providing common ground for Iranian and American communities watching, requiring them to respect each other as equal opponents playing the world’s game.
While futból remains one of Cuba’s most popular sports, it lags behind other sports – and the world – on a variety of fronts. While technically el Campeonato Nacional de Fútbol de Cuba functions as the top division of the Cuban Football Association, this is the first year that any player will have the “blessing” of their association to play professionally in a Cuban league. Soccer players can play for club teams in Cuba and, if selected for the national team, the Cuban national soccer academy, which is subsidized by the Communist government. According to 2008 defectors, the average pay for a Cuban national teamer playing at the soccer academy was roughly $20 per month; this salary is the norm for most professions in Cuba. For the sake of comparison, the cost of an hour of internet service at a an internet cafe or hotel is about $2. To pay for basic goods and services, most Cuban citizens engage in illegal activities to subsidize their salaries, such as the bartering and selling of legal and illicit goods and services, which are tolerated by their government.
In 1962, Fidel Castro outlawed all professional sports contracts, so all Cuban leagues have been strictly amateur. Yet every provincial capital has a baseball stadium with professional teams playing five times per week during their ninety-game regular season. Excluding el Estadio Pedro Marrero, where the friendly will be played, there are very few custom-built football stadiums. Rather, many games in the league, which runs from October to February, are held in baseball stadiums or on poor pitches with minimal enclosure.
Considering the conditions under which Cuban national players of all sport federations train, it’s unsurprising that dozens of Cuban footballers have defected to the United States when visiting North America for international competitions. Under the American “wet foot dry foot policy,” enacted as an amendment to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act in 1995, Cuban defectors can claim “dry feet” if they are on American soil and qualify for legal permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship (those found in international waters are classified with ‘wet feet’ and are ineligible to claim such benefits). By far, the most successful of the defected Cuban footballers is Osvaldo Alonso who currently plays for the Seattle Sounders; he is the only defected Cuban footballer to play for an MLS team thus far.
While the United States have played Cuba in several competitions from 2010 World Cup Qualifier in Havana eight years ago to the 2015 Gold Cup 6-0 thrashing in Baltimore, they’ve not met in a friendly since 1947. However, unbeknownst to many, an American professional sports team played and beat the Cuban national team on home soil a year before President Obama was there to participate in a seventh inning stretch. With Pelé as their President and goodwill ambassador of sorts, the New York Cosmos visited Havana last year and beat Cuba 4-1. The Cosmos were the first American soccer team to play in Cuba since the Chicago Sting played a friendly against their team in 1978. While perpetual rains diluted crowd attendance in the 30,000 capacity stadium, both the American and Cuban national anthems were played with an American flag on display on the pitch. Before the Rays played an inning, the Cosmos proved that a professional sporting event between American and Cuban teams could be peacefully and successfully produced in Cuba.
Although the Cosmos name still carries cachet, NASL isn’t as popular as MLS, and many Cubans probably paid no attention at all. And while the game received some media coverage in the United States, it’s likely Americans not avidly following the North American Soccer League never knew it happened. But a USMNT match will be watched by millions living in the US. Does that mean that these two sides meeting in Havana can be used as a rallying point for engagement? Well, while Iranians and Armenians watched their World Cup matches with pride for their national teams, there’s a reason President Obama isn’t traveling with Steve Birnbaum from D.C.
If we’re going to treat the USMNT’s friendly in Cuba as a soccer game that could have some political effect on the nations involved, you have to consider both who is playing and who is watching. Common in numerous nations and communities where football diplomacy has been deemed successful, or even simply attempted, is a nation passionate about football. If we accept this as a basic requirement, then both countries might not necessarily satisfy what’s needed for football diplomacy to be effective. Do the majority of Americans and Cubans watch every Copa América and obsesses about their national team players who are suiting up for clubs across the globe? But it’s not about who’s sitting at the Bunny Bar or whether American Outlaws are cheering. If this match is supposed to foster soccer diplomacy, then the standard USMNT audience and Cuban population on the island are can’t be considered the true target audience.
Media outlets outside Cuba have a tendency to pedal the American embargo as one of the main deterrents to Cuban prosperity and sociopolitical development. Lifting the embargo would require the House of Representatives and Senate, two institutions mired in partisan infighting, first to agree to vote on lifting the embargo, then to approve such a vote with a majority of both Houses of Congress before getting the President’s approval. If you know anything about American politics, especially surrounding Cuban-American relations, you know this is wildly improbable in the current political climate. The Cuban Adjustment Act, and especially its wet foot dry foot policy, remains a thorn in the side of any and all discussions on how to unite these two nations.
The decision on whether to engage with Cuba’s government is further complicated by divisions within the Cuban-American community. Vehemently opposed to the communist government they fled, the older generation of Cuban immigrants tend to oppose all economic and political engagement with the Castro regime. By comparison, portions of the first- and second-generation Cuban-American immigrant population believe engagement can encourage democratic and capitalist reform. These opposing views have discouraged most US politicians from taking any action on the embargo.
It takes about 45 minutes to fly from Miami International Airport to José Martí International Airport. If you take that flight, you’ll likely be accompanied by Cubans returning home and Cuban-Americans visiting their families. You’ll see the luggage carousels spitting out sets of car tires, flat-screen televisions, various kitchen appliances and other consumer goods. The Castro government has made some economic reforms in recent years, but there continue to be strict controls on commerce within the country. While the American embargo is not the root of all problems in the Cuban economy, real interaction with Cuba, beyond educational travel visas and business meetings, is dependent on the lifting of the embargo.
Real opportunity needs to return to Cuba. For many reasons, up to and including the fact that potential defectors will need a reason to stay and play for their national team in lieu of tempting opportunities abroad. For soccer diplomacy to work, this game must attract the attention of those most able to affect change. But while this game is an opportunity for communities in Havana and Little Havana alike to watch the same program, a bigger question is if anyone watching at Versailles in Miami will give a damn.
It’s clear Cuban-Americans are not the target audience for this match. Promoting it as an international friendly with diplomatic implications is an obvious advertising strategy for American soccer broadcasters and US Soccer. Considering the intricacies of this diplomatic relationship, this match looks to be little more than a publicity stunt that will not provide any real preparation for the Hex. Sure, if Pulisic scores a hat trick in Cuba, he will be able to have a legal drink closer to home than ever before. American Outlaws will be able to cheer and toast to their eighteen-year-old phenom with Budweisers and Coronas. Maybe even Diego Maradona himself will be watching at the Bunny Bar. But this historic match can matter if some of the people who are watching are sipping on cafecitos in Miami.