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Cuban baseball team finds anger and support in Miami


MIAMI — Jose Vilela fled Cuba for the United States when he was 14 years old after spending six months in a concentration camp. Like many of his compatriots, he settled in the Cuban neighborhood of Miami, Little Havana.

Vilela, now 68, spent Sunday afternoon in front of IoanDepot Stadium, the home of the Miami Marlins, where the Cuban baseball team later lost 14-2 to the United States in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic.

For proud expats who wanted to separate sports from politics, the first game of the national team in Miami was a cause for celebration.

But for Vilela and other centenarians, it was a reason to protest against the political oppression from which they escaped.

Outside the stadium on Sunday, Vilela vociferously demanded that anyone associated with the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who turned from Soviet-style communism, to leave the community. That appeared to a lot of players, who are technically government employees.

Three protesters were escorted out of the stadium after jumping onto the field during the match.

In the sixth inning, a protester waved a flag that read “Freedom for the Cuban prisoners of July 11,” alluding to the day when thousands of Cubans took to the streets on the island in 2021 to protest the shortages, the blackouts and economic hardships. Hundreds of people who participated are in prison. On Saturday, the public chanted “Freedom!” as the protester left the field.

Yosvel González was born in Cuba and wore an orange and green jersey of the late Marlins pitcher José Fernández, who was born in Cuba and died in a boating accident in 2016. González said he expected the atmosphere of the game to be tense, but encouraged a vat

The fan expressed his love for the United States, which had given him political asylum, but stressed that his land was his land, no matter who ruled.

Fan reactions were mixed at the game. Some repeated “Freedom!”. Others celebrated the runs of the Cuban team in the first and fifth innings. Choruses of “USA” were often heard.

Players and coaches have proven themselves in the sport. In statements after the match, the Cuban coach, Armando Johnson, said that the team had not paid attention to the protesters, and that he did not judge those who protested, but had gone there to play.

Cuban fans enter LoanDepot Stadium for a World Baseball Classic semifinal game between Cuba and the United States, Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Miami.  (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Soccer is generally the most popular sport in Latin America, but in Cuba baseball is king.

The island has a rich history of stars and sports success. The Cuban team won Olympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2004, but massive player defections have made it difficult for it to remain competitive on the international scene. The Cuban baseball team will not be invalidated for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Elite athletes on the island earn a government salary to train and compete, but Cuba has banned professional sports on the island since the Cuban revolution 60 years ago.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, an organizer of Sunday’s protests, said he had nothing against the players. Sánchez, 68, has been separated from his family since he arrived in Little Havana 55 years ago.

Although everyone wanted to support the Cuban team, he said, the situation was complex because the US team was also playing and many had their hearts divided between the two countries. However, he said, everyone knew that behind this game there was not only sport, but also a lot of politics.

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