A new playing field between Washington and the Havana
Back in December, US President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro announced a historic change of course after more than five decades of Cold War strains. Although the 1962 US imposed trade and financial embargo is still currently still in effect, flexibility has been shown in sign of good faith from both sides. Last week Friday, Cuba and the United States reported making progress toward restoring diplomatic relations following two days of talks and pledged to continue informal negotiations in the coming weeks.
Although Cuba’s revolutionary icon Fidel Castro outlawed pro sports in 1961, his brother Raul made it legal again after he came to power in 2006. With the US government as pioneers of “Ping-Pong diplomacy” over four decades ago, it is not surprising to see sport exchanges as one of the priority areas on the agenda to re-establish relations between Cuba and the United States.
In more than fifty years of conflict it is not the first time sport is being used to bring the two populations together, previous attempts to use baseball to install relations between Cuba and the United States were made by various parties in the past. It seems Washington and the Havana have understood that sport can open doors but it has to accompany a dynamic or hope to open dialogue towards one and cannot be expected to achieve anything alone.
Indeed a number of sport exchanges have taken place; in January Cuba’s first Triathlon welcomed American athletes a month after the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations. In early April it was the turn of the NBA to host a four day basketball camp. Earlier this month we saw the “Havana Challenge” a common regatta in the Havana and to add to this, earlier this week “Salsa in the Square” a public wrestling event in Times Square. A number of other events have additionally been announced a cosmos soccer team game against Cuba and the hope of Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles are expected to become the first US big league team to play in baseball-crazed Cuba.
We must continue to ensure the autonomy of sport and let sport, children and athletes participate while understanding its powerful nature of offering a human exchange thus making it a powerful diplomatic tool. Sport diplomacy ultimately occurs very much like any moment in conflict transformation between human beings, when the grace of one competitor or side decides to respect an opponent’s right to play the game and showcases this recognition of the other’s right of being through a sporting exchange. Indeed it is a mere first step but any peacemaker, mediator, conflict transformation expert or diplomat knows not to underestimate such gestures as worthy steps forward in opening dialogue.
The opportunity to play another game makes it easier to build on previous ties. Nevertheless, it is necessary to strike a balance. If sport is used solely for propaganda, to display a muscular nationalism and ideological prowess or to market a consumerist lifestyle, the chance to educate is surely lost and education has to be at the core of our strategy.