Seeing Things: The Boys of October

Some conservatives look back with nostalgia at the Cold War. It gave us, they believe, a moral crusade that kept our country at least minimally engaged in something loftier than the getting and spending that are so much a part of modern American life.

I am not one of these romantics. Too many people suffered and died under communism for us to think of its demise as anything but a boon for the human race. And communism, it is worth remembering, is not entirely dead. In China, it is going through a metamorphosis into a system of capitalism combined with old-style totalitarian repression. And in Cuba, it continues on its not-so-merry way.

One of the best windows into the ongoing outrages of the Castro regime recently appeared in the form of a baseball memoir: The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream, by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez (Villard Books, 2001).

Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, the gifted right-hander now pitching for the New York Yankees, was living in a cinder-block shack five years ago. The reason? Despite his talents (he had won 129 games and lost only 47, an unprecedented record in baseball-mad Cuba), Hernandez had been banned from “revolutionary baseball.” His crime? He had spoken with a Cuban-American sports agent and, according to the authorities, was planning to leave the island.

Whether he really intended to do so is unclear; Hernandez was a Cuban patriot and had earlier been a believer in Fidel Castro’s revolution. But whatever uncertainty he may have felt ended during a year of enforced idleness. El Duque left Cuba on a small boat, accompanied by his girlfriend, his catcher, and several other friends and relatives.

Well-off people in the United States who disagree with our embargo of Cuba tend to downplay the terrible conditions that drive many Cubans—including their most gifted athletes—to risk their lives in these desperate escapes. Hernandez was luckier than many: His boat did not sink until it was close to Anguilla in the Bahamas and could be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. From there, he went to Costa Rica, where Yankee scouts signed him to a four-year, $6.6 million contract. It would have taken him more than 60,000 years to make that much money in Havana (that is, if he had been allowed to play). The end of Soviet subsidies was turning Cuba from a poor country where at least some people owned automobiles into a poorer one in which bicycles and horse-drawn carriages have become common again in many cities.

Fainaru and Sanchez tell this story with humor and verve, though sometimes even they fall prey to Cuban propaganda about the Castro regime’s success in promoting literacy and medical care and stamping out racism. These claims of progress need to be viewed against the record of a revolutionary government that required an annual $6 billion Soviet subsidy.

In the five years after the Soviet Union disappeared, the Cuban economy shrank by more than one-third. The authors tell of shortages of bats and balls, of pitchers lending each other spikes right on the field between innings, of crowds of 300 at stadiums built to hold 55,000, as baseball tickets became an expensive luxury. It’s no wonder that so many players—even the ones not banned by the government from playing—sought greener pastures elsewhere.

The man who almost single-handedly made this possible could have stepped out of the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Joe Cubas was the classic big-time operator. He became so familiar to the Cuban players while they were traveling abroad that they nick-named him El Gordo (the Fat Man).

Cubas had the backing of the wealthy exile community and the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. He also benefited from the parallel efforts of Hernandez’s uncle (a bodyguard of the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa) who through several shady underworld connections helped set up his nephew’s escape.

Meanwhile, Cubas was engaged in international intrigues, chasing Cuban players at games all over the world. He developed an elaborate system of coded communications and high-tech telephone encryption to stay ahead of Cuban intelligence. Cubas got Hernandez a tryout in Costa Rica and quickly arranged to have him sign with the Yankees in early 1998. That same year, El Duque pitched game four of the American League Championship against the Cleveland Indians and game two of the World Series against the San Diego Padres.

While the Yankees were systematically dispatching the Padres, a different drama was coming to a happy conclusion, largely owing to the intervention of the late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York. By that time, El Duque had not seen his mother, ex-wife, and two young daughters for more than a year. His frequent public references to Castro as “the devil” did not make him a good candidate for the Maximum Leader’s favors. The usual go-betweens—Muhammad Ali, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jesse Jackson—chose not to intervene. But Pamela Falk, a City University of New York professor trying to help Hernandez, hit on the idea of using the Church to reunite the family.

Two things had made this possible. First, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in January 1998 had raised the visibility of the Cuban Church and increased the involvement of U.S. Catholic leaders in the island. But the key was Castro’s long-standing respect for O’Connor.

The two had first met in 1987, according to the New York archdiocese’s Hispanic liaison, Mario Paredes. Castro castigated the cardinal for showing up late to a meeting and then went on to lambaste the United States. O’Connor boldly replied: “Mr. President, I am a North American citizen. I fly the flag of the United States. You are insulting my country right in front of me…. I served proudly in the United States Navy for over 30 years.” Castro was characteristically impressed with this display of courage and thereafter sent gifts to the cardinal at Christmas and on his birthday.

A letter from O’Connor and a visit from Paredes as Castro watched the 1998 World Series clinched the deal on the Cuban side. Castro was probably convinced that a show of generosity would do his deeply troubled regime some good. El Duque’s family was authorized “to go, and if they wish to, to return.”

The American reaction was more complicated. The Clinton administration feared complaints from Miami that rich Cubans could get entrance visas for their families while poor ones could not. Eventually, the White House calculated that it had to go along with the idea for political reasons. But before the Hernandez family could enter the country, former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno had to sign off at the Justice Department. According to Fainaru and Sanchez, it was “divine intervention”—working, again, through O’Connor—that led Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh, a Catholic, to allow the Hernandez family into the country in time for the Yankee victory parade in New York.

These kinds of dramas continue to arise wherever Marxism still has a foothold. The Chinese government routinely imprisons Catholics and other religious and political dissidents; North Korea’s once-strong Catholic Church has been suppressed for half a century; and less than 100 miles off U.S. shores, an ailing Castro has put his gesture of goodwill behind him and reverted to harsh treatment of the Church in Cuba. We don’t need the return of the Cold War to put some backbone into U.S. attitudes about foreign affairs, just an honest awareness of the outrages that have continued while many among us believed they were a thing of the past.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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