The Cubans should have been there.
Last Sunday, Trinidad and Tobago defeated Jamaica in the championship match of the Stanford 20/20, a regional cricket tournament that attracted twenty teams from across the West Indies. Organized and financed by Texas billionaire Allen Stanford, the tournament offered more than $1.9 million in prize money, making it one of the richest cricket competitions in the world. In addition to splitting the $1 million championship prize, the team from Trinidad and Tobago also received $200,000 for domestic grassroots cricket development. Jamaica, the runners-up, collected half a million dollars for their tournament success and $100,000 for grassroots initiatives. Lest the other teams felt left out of the monetary windfall, Stanford personally invested more than $6 million to support local development projects in each of the participating nations. This money is being used to fund the construction of new cricket facilities, provide adequate equipment, and generate a pool of qualified coaches and officials. By plunging so much money into regional development, Stanford hopes to revive West Indian cricket and establish his adopted home of Antigua as a central base for a Caribbean professional league. Intriguing, but what about the Cubans?
Long known as a baseball power and home to talented boxers, Cuba has recently rediscovered cricket. Originally brought to the island in the 1920s by sugar cane workers from Jamaica and Barbados, cricket flourished in the southeastern area of Cuba until the 1959 revolution. Soon thereafter, Castro and his regime nationalized the sport system and gave priority to supporting Olympic sports and their beloved game of baseball. Hampered by a lack of funding and waning interest, Cuban cricket virtually disappeared. A slow revival of the game began in the 1990s, spurred primarily by the British Council in Havana. In 2002, Cuba gained affiliate membership to the International Cricket Council. Since then, Cuban cricket has benefited from substantial British aid in the form of equipment, skills clinics, and coach trainings. Fidel Castro (perhaps in a moment of anti-American fervor?) even declared cricket to be an official “national sport” of Cuba.
Recognizing the promise of Cuban cricket, and its potential importance to the resurgence of a unified West Indian cricketing culture, Stanford invited the Cuban national team to participate in the Stanford 20/20 tournament. The team was scheduled to make its regional competitive debut in the opening match of the tournament on January 25, 2008. By competing in the tournament, the Cubans stood to gain significant financial resources to devote to the local growth and expansion of the game. Yet, six weeks before the start of the tournament, the United States government denied Stanford’s application to engage in commercial activity with Cuba. As an American, Stanford had a legal obligation to gain permission from the government prior to conducting any business relations with Cuba, including inviting the Cuban cricket team to play in his tournament. Stanford appealed the decision, but to no avail. He was forced to rescind his invitation to the Cuban cricketers, and they never made it to the tournament.
It is a travesty that the US embargo continues to prevent economic and cultural exchanges with Cuba, and particularly ridiculous that the Cuban cricket team—the cricket team!—became the latest victim of the embargo. Why would the US government care about an innocuous cricket tournament in the West Indies? Sure, the Cubans could have walked away with $1 million of an American’s money, but it’s just a sport competition. Why should the government care if Stanford wants to give away his fortune to cricket-playing island nations in the Caribbean? Right?
Not so simple. Perhaps Stanford’s tournament, and his wider project to promote cricket throughout the region, is not as innocuous as it first seems. Beneath the surface of sporting goodwill lays a political project that seeks to reaffirm West Indian national identity and challenge the existing power structures of international cricket. For Cuba, cricket could very well represent a means to constructing a national identity that is intrinsically tied to its West Indian neighbors rather than reliant upon the binary opposition with the United States. As Stanford’s tournament illustrates, cricket is also a path to hefty financial awards that could dramatically impact the Cuban sport system. With this mix of monetary incentive, regional unification, and the assertion of a changing national identity, it’s not a surprise that the US government sought to maintain its control over Cuba by blocking the cricket team’s participation in the Stanford 20/20.
The US needs to stop its Cold War posturing and quit meddling in Cuban affairs, sporting or otherwise. It’s too early to determine if the recent shift of authority from Fidel to Raul Castro will have any affect on the US embargo, but two things will remain constant: the Cuban cricketers will continue to train, and Stanford will continue to offer them an invitation to his annual tournament. Hopefully the Cubans will be there next year.