Foul Ball

How a communist dictatorship and a U.S. embargo has silenced a Cuban historian.


George W. Bush would love to be the president who finally topples the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He also probably wouldn't mind winning Florida by a somewhat more comfortable margin in 2004, or seeing his brother Jeb get re-elected governor this November.

With these goals as a backdrop, the Bush administration launched a crackdown last July on Americans who have the bad manners to spend money in Cuba—766 unlucky travelers were fined up to $7,500 for violating the Trading With the Enemy Act in 2001, up from just 188 during Bill Clinton's final year as president. By punishing a tiny fraction of the estimated 200,000-plus Americans who visit the communist island each year, Bush hopes to inflict some kind of indirect damage on the septuagenarian tyrant who has confounded no fewer than eight of his previous U.S. counterparts.

Which brings us to the revered Cuban baseball historian Severo Nieto. Nieto is certainly among the most peculiar and unsung victims of the long standoff between the U.S. and the Castro regime. While perhaps less spectacular and certainly less harrowing than many tales of repression emanating from Cuba, Nieto's story brings to light a sad and often unexamined effect not just of Castro's tyranny but of American policy: how the U.S. embargo, whatever its intention, starves both sides of meaningful and important communication.

The apolitical Nieto, who is a few years El Jefe's senior, basically invented Cuban baseball research in 1955 when he co-authored the country's first-ever baseball encyclopedia, laboriously reconstructing the statistical record of the professional league's first 78 years out of a mountain of newspaper clippings, program scraps, and his own scorecards. Since that dramatic debut, Nieto's been on one of the longest losing streaks in modern publishing history. He has spent a half-century documenting Cuba's tremendously rich professional past in more than a dozen books, but not a single one has been published in any country.

"I tried several times," Nieto told me in his cluttered Havana apartment four years ago, "but they say it's difficult now in Cuba because we don't have any paper." Castro, of course, has been overseeing one of the world's most politically selective paper shortages for decades, reserving precious pulp for odes to Cuba's famed amateur athletic accomplishments while rejecting books that glorify anything about the pre-revolution era.

Cubans aren't the only ones who suffer from this revisionist whitewashing. Americans want access to the archives, because the history of the two countries' professional development is closely intertwined. Indeed, the story of the U.S. national pastime is inextricably linked to Cuba.

Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier (after the Dodgers' 1947 spring training in Havana, incidentally), Cuba was the only place where the best white major leaguers—Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth—played against some of the top black talent of their era. The U.S. Negro Leagues were stocked with Cubans such as Martin Dihigo (a Hall of Famer in four separate countries), and black American stars from Josh Gibson to James "Cool Papa" Bell to Buck Leonard, who spent their winters starring in the competitive winter league in Havana.

In the tumultuous 1950s, the Cuban Sugar Kings served as the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in the summer, while winter-league fans could watch the likes of Brooks Robinson and Jim Bunning duke it out with Cuban stars Minnie Minoso and Camilo Pascual. American scouts, led by Papa Joe Cambria of the woeful and heavily Cuban Washington Senators, fought over a talent pool that would produce many of the names that defined 1960s and '70s Major League Baseball—Hall of Famer Tony Perez, three-time batting champion Tony Oliva, 1965 MVP Zoilo Versailles, three-time world champion Bert Campaneris, cigar-chomping pitcher Luis Tiant, and 1969 Cy Young Award winner Mike Cuellar.

Even with a flurry of recent books about Cuban baseball, such as Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria's The Pride of Havana and Milton Jamail's Full Count, the historical record remains a gaping hole, one that Nieto is uniquely positioned to help fill.

"Very little information is available at this time—it's truly one of the last frontiers of baseball research," says Steve Wilson, senior editor of the McFarland & Co. publishing house, which bills itself as the largest publisher of serious baseball nonfiction. "Nieto's painstaking research over several decades has resulted in a tremendous store of information about this relatively unexplored area of baseball history."

The prospect of getting their hands on Nieto's unpublished treasure trove—which includes such books as Big League Teams in Cuba, Martin Dihigo, El Maestro, and Professional Baseball in Cuba, 1878-1961—has left American baseball historians salivating. Yet none of his work has ever seen the light of day across the Florida Straits. The main obstacle to the consummation has been a heartbreaking communications gap, created by two governments that have been unable to budge from positions of mutual hostility.

It's easy—and not necessarily wrong—to think of the U.S. embargo of Cuba primarily in economic and political terms: We hope to starve Castro and his government to death, or at least to the point of collapse. But over 40 years out, it's transparently clear that people such as Nieto are the ones bearing the burden, impoverished as much by their removal from an international community of cultural and intellectual exchange as by their banishment from economic trade with the U.S. And it is clear, too, that people in the U.S. are paying a price not to be measured in dollars and cents for their government's refusal to allow commerce in ideas and knowledge along with goods.

When I visited Nieto, his most prized possessions weren't his various signed baseballs or ancient game programs, but rather letters from Americans expressing interest in his research. He proudly showed me carefully preserved correspondence from Pacific Coast League historian Jay Berman, from historian-authors John Holway, Peter Bjarkman, and Larry Lester, and from the publisher McFarland & Co. When I asked why these encouraging notes hadn't led to anything concrete, he shrugged and motioned to the telephone. "I can't call them," he said.

Most Cubans cannot make international phone calls from their homes. Many can't even receive them. McFarland & Co.'s Wilson summarized the problem succinctly: "Mr. Nieto speaks no English and is, we are told, hard of hearing, so we have not tried to communicate by phone. Mail to and from Cuba is unreliable and e-mail nonexistent."

In the end, the only real way for Nieto to communicate with his suitors and potential collaborators is for them to visit him in Cuba. That's especially unlikely to happen any time soon. As the Knight-Ridder news service put it on March 22, "The White House, eager to please Cuban-American voters in Florida who play an outsized role in national politics, plans soon to announce moves to tighten the embargo."

After some 41 years of the embargo's measurable failure to topple Castro, the Bush administration appears to favor the concept of throwing good money after bad. "Just because the policy hasn't yet brought results, I don't think it's an argument for doing away with it," State Department Deputy Director of Cuban Affairs Kevin Whitaker told a Palm Beach public affairs forum in mid-March, according to the Palm Beach Post. "I think we've taken enough grief for the Cuba policy over the years that we ought to get something for it."

The State Department's nominee for head of Western Hemisphere Affairs, the Cuban-American Otto Reich, was backed strongly by the powerful anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation. He was bitterly opposed by Democrats leery of Reich's track record during the 1980s, when he headed up the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and was charged by the U.S. comptroller-general with conducting "prohibited, covert propaganda activities" at the height of the Oliver North era. Bush avoided a confirmation ruckus by making Reich a recess appointment in January. The Associated Press quoted Bush's new Latin America chief in late March as saying that the best method for stimulating change in Cuba was "not throwing a lifeline to a failed, corrupt, dictatorial, murderous regime."

Other recent developments have more ominous implications for freedom in North America itself. In mid-March, James Sabzali became the first Canadian citizen to be tried in a U.S. court for doing business in Cuba. Sabzali and his business partners, Americans Stefan and Donald Brodie, have been charged with more than 70 counts of trading with the enemy between 1992 and 2000, when their Pennsylvania-based chemical company Bro-Tech Corp. allegedly sold more than $2 million in water-purifying resins to Cuban companies. If convicted, the defendants face maximum sentences of life in prison.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Spokesman Reynald Doiron has called the case "objectionable and unacceptable," while a U.S. State Department official shrugged it off: "We understand that there are other countries out there that don't see eye to eye with us on [Cuba], and we do think that's unfortunate."

But it's the new crackdown on simple travel that has affected the most Americans, and attracted the most attention. In order for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba legally, they must be granted a special waiver from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The license, which was designed for journalists, researchers, students, and business organizations, takes several months to obtain, and OFAC is not at all impressed with personal deadlines. Given the hassle factor, and given that Cuban customs authorities don't stamp Americans' passports, many have found it easier to take their chances and fly to Havana from either Mexico or Canada.

OFAC says it handed out 140,000 licenses in 2001, and estimated another 60,000 Americans traveled to Cuba illegally. The latter figure is probably much too low—of the hundreds of Americans I've met who have traveled to Cuba, only a small percentage received official clearance. Whatever the number of illegal travelers, they are facing increased scrutiny upon their return. Senate hearings in February revealed that a full seven of OFAC's 129 employees have been deployed to hunt down illegal travelers.

Lawbreakers like me are sent letters demanding the names and addresses of every place they slept, and a full accounting of any money spent, upon penalty of prosecution. (In my case, I gave OFAC a very partial list and said that my non-American wife paid for all our expenses. After that, I never heard anything back.)

"We are trying to minimize the flow of hard currency to Cuba," OFAC Director R. Richard Newcomb testified to the Senate. "Obviously, travel to tourism centers would contribute to hard currency."

The travel crackdown is being prosecuted against the wishes of the House of Representatives, which voted 240 to 186 last July to forbid the Treasury Department from spending money to enforce the ban. The measure was stalled in the Senate, but 34 members of Congress have recently created a new bipartisan Cuba Working Group to challenge the embargo. They're beginning with restrictions on travel.

"This is an issue of freedom," said Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a leader of the new bloc, at its kickoff press conference in late March. "Every citizen ought to have the right to see firsthand what a mess [Castro] has made of that island."

Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), another leader of the working group, pointed out that the policy is riddled with inconsistencies. "Americans today can travel to Iran, can travel to North Korea," he said. "By my calculations, that's two-thirds of the Axis of Evil."

"I don't think travel restrictions do anything to impede Fidel Castro," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) argued at the February Senate hearings. "It only impedes U.S. citizens."

And, of course, Cubans such as Nieto.

Havana is famously seething with Cubans trying to pump dollars from tourists. Walk through the central city as a blond man in a white T-shirt, and you'll spend your days hearing the hissing "kss-kss!" sound of people trying to grab your attention. It isn't all about money scams, cheap cigars, and prostitutes. Just as often—maybe more often—the approaching strangers and instant friends just want to talk, to practice their foreign languages, to pepper you with questions about the outside world.

Who really killed Tupac? What are the lyrics to that Rage Against the Machine song, and what do they mean? How are the people doing in Budapest and Prague now? Do American girls like Cuban men? What do the people think about Bill Clinton? Why does your country keep insisting on the bloqueo? How famous is Gloria Estefan? Why isn't Luis Tiant in the Hall of Fame? These are all questions I heard during my month there.

There are many things in Havana to be shocked by: the rotted buildings, the child prostitution, the high price of Cuban beer, the suffocating role of the state in virtually all human transactions. But the thing I found most appalling was the culture of information. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

The daily newspaper, Granma, is thin, horribly written, and used primarily for toilet paper (what with the shortages and all). The director of Cuba's sports Hall of Fame could not tell me how many members it had. It took me a week of asking dedicated baseball fans to find out how one could obtain a schedule for upcoming games. Periodical libraries—filled with glorious back issues of Havana's handsome and competitive round-the-clock newspapers from before World War II—are off-limits to most ordinary Cubans.

Even though people are generally smart and jaded enough to tune out the government's propaganda, they don't have much of anything to replace it with, except for the odd BBC broadcast—and contact with foreign tourists. Every conversation with an American about the U.S. undermines Fidel Castro by definition, because it surely contradicts the banal lies he and his media mouth on a daily basis.

For Nieto, you can see the visceral pleasure and national pride in his eyes when he meets someone who knows even a little about Cuba's baseball greats: legendary players such as the pitcher Dolf Luque, who passed for white and won 194 games in a 20-year Major League career with the Reds, Dodgers, and Giants, and managed several of Cuba's most legendary teams; pitcher Jose Mendez ("El Diamante Negro"), who threw 25 shutout innings against visiting big-league teams in 1908; and Cocaina Garcia, a fat little left-handed junkballer who starred both on the mound and in the outfield for decades.

Yet despite his joy at meeting like minds from the United States, Nieto has no way of knowing whether at least some of Castro's depictions of Americans as vicious capitalist sharks are true. Like several people who have met Nieto, I implored him to make me a copy of one of his books on a floppy disk (he has an ancient computer), so I could show it around to people at U.S. publishing houses. He clearly wanted to, but said that his son Eduardo, who lives in Spain, kept warning him about getting ripped off by greedy, back-stabbing Americans. At the end of our meeting, he finally agreed to have a relative of his bring me some disks on an upcoming trip to Los Angeles. I never heard from Nieto or his family again.

Other visitors tell similar stories. "Nieto had a friend who attended the Atlanta Olympics, and I was supposed to meet him on the State House steps, but I was late because of traffic and missed him," said baseball historian John Holway, author of the Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues. "I left messages for him at the press center and wrote to Nieto to apologize, but he didn't answer."

Jay Berman, a retired California State University at Fullerton journalism professor and a charter member of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society, said that he was finally able to bring back five of Nieto's disks a year ago, which he then sent off to McFarland & Co., the baseball book publisher. "I think Nieto and his work could help finish up a lot of questions," Berman said. "But because he is 79 years old there's a very real question as to how much longer he's going to be able to….That's part of the frustration of the whole thing."

McFarland & Co.'s Steve Wilson says that, after "several years of active, fruitful discussions with Mr. Nieto, primarily through intermediaries including his son," his publishing house is now "hopeful that a book may eventually result." No details are forthcoming, though the company plans to bring out two other major volumes on Cuban baseball history over the next two years.

For now, Nieto just continues to get older, while his historian colleagues in the U.S. become far more wary of traveling to Cuba because of Bush's policy of tightening the embargo yet again.

"I talked with a friend in Havana yesterday," Berman told me. "He says he's well aware of the crackdown and is suggesting to American friends that they stay away until after Jeb Bush is re-elected."

Does the diplomatic standoff leave any room for hope? Members of the Cuba Working Group say yes, and plan to reintroduce a bill overturning the travel ban this spring. Maybe a politician running against the Cuban American National Foundation will actually win a Florida election.

Perhaps Severo Nieto's long-suppressed works will finally be published in the U.S. and in his native Cuba, to great acclaim—the literary equivalent of a last-chance, game-winning home run. But such moments are rare enough in baseball, let alone in life itself.