The collegiate baseball scene in Tampa has emerged as a microcosm of the national debate on normalizing relations with Cuba, with one coach reveling in the benefits openness can bring and another insisting that economic alienation is the surest way to wipe communism from the island nation just off Florida’s shores.
The University of Tampa, defending NCAA Division II national champion, and Coach Joe Urso returned this month from a one-week trip to Cuba — an excursion school officials declare a victory both on and off the field.
Besides going 3-0 in exhibition play against Cuban youth squads, UT players learned about the nation’s history and culture, forged relationships with opposing players and served as ambassadors from the United States.
“I’m of the school that the more we open dialogue and education, the quicker we are going to tear down those barriers,” said UT athletic director Larry Marfise. “In that sense, this trip was a success. Our players were tremendous ambassadors.”
On the other side of the debate is University of South Florida baseball coach Lelo Prado, a native of Cuba whose family fled in 1963 when he was 3 months old, about the time the United States instituted its Cuba trade and travel embargo. Prado says any outsider visiting Cuba now serves only to finance an oppressive regime.
“Who do you think is getting the money?” Prado asked. “It isn’t the citizens. I don’t think anybody should be supporting that country.”
It’s no idle question for Prado. He is a former UT player and head coach who led the Spartans to two national titles. He was the winningest coach in school history, with 278 victories in seven years. The school retired his jersey, and he still has many friends there.
Prado would have faced a tough choice if presented the opportunity to play in Cuba.
But at USF, it’s a moot point.
No one from the school can travel there as a representative because of Florida’s 2006 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, a bill forbidding money that flows through a state university — including grants from private foundations — to be used for travel to a nation on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Florida is the only state in the nation with such a law. Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba are the nations now on the list.
Because UT is a private university, the act does not apply to its baseball team.
At the time the law was passed, opponents called it an attempt by critics of the Castro regime to stymie travel to Cuba. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the act, saying it conflicts with federal law. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court ruled in favor of the state.
Prado sees the UT visit to Cuba as a mistake based on what he has come to know about the communist government from his parents and other exiles, as well as from Cuban baseball players he has met in international competitions.
“My parents went through a lot,” Prado said, though he declined to elaborate. “A lot of bad things went on there, and a lot of bad things still go on. Cuban baseball players have told me that they don’t like the communist government and they wish they could get out. It’s sad.
“I hope that every kid on the UT team and every coach that went to Cuba came back realizing how lucky they are.”
They did, Coach Urso said.
“I think we were all shocked to learn how little they have,” Urso said. “You hear about it and read about it, but until you see it yourself, see horse-drawn carriages still being used as transportation and the old cars they drive and then meet a doctor who only makes $25 a month — it’s hard to accept it as truth.
“We left realizing more than ever how great our country is.”
They also learned a great deal about the Cuban people.
His players toured Havana’s museums and visited the presidential palace, absorbing history while strengthening their knowledge of Cuba’s ties to Tampa dating to the 1800s.
They also spent time with the home teams and with retired legends of Cuban baseball. Through those interactions, Urso said, his players learned that people transcend the ideals of their government. The two governments may be enemies, but when their people are allowed to communicate, friendship trumps politics.
Marfise, the UT athletic director, said some of the Cuban fans were cheering the UT players.
“Sports bring people together,” Urso said. “We’re all basically the same. Traveling internationally reinforces that. That’s why international trips are important, whether to Cuba or Germany or wherever.”
Urso said it cost about $90,000 to send 36 people — players and coaches — to Cuba. The university paid 60 percent, and private boosters paid 40 percent. Some parents went, but they paid their own way.
“It was a tremendous experience for the team,” Urso said, “and a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity Prado might not regret missing under the current Cuba regime.
But in the view of some of his colleagues at USF, the restriction against state travel there has hurt the institution academically.
Some argue that access is vital for a university in the U.S. city with the deepest historic ties to Cuba. One ocean researcher says the restriction “severely handcuffs” his work.
“Cuba is in the pathway of waters that come to Florida from the Caribbean,” said Frank E. Muller-Karger, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science.
“Cuba affects everything from salt to nutrients to heat transport as well as larvae of lobster and corral. Not being allowed to travel to Cuba to measure the currents or the chemical or biological properties of the water in and around Cuba is blindfolding my work.”
Under President Barrack Obama’s administration, travel to Cuba has been easier than under previous administrations. Cuban-Americans with family on the island have been granted unlimited trips there, where before the limit was one trip every three years.
Obama also created a People to People exchange — a license that allows those without family in Cuba to travel to the island as a way of fostering dialogue. It was under People to People that the UT baseball team traveled.
With travel opening up to academics outside Florida, the Latin American studies program at USF is at risk of falling behind, said Noel Smith, curator of Latin American and Caribbean art at the university.
“If you are a serious grad student interested in Latin American studies, why would you want to attend a school that doesn’t allow you to visit a Latin American country with rich ties to the U.S.?” she asked.
“I guarantee, every university in this country with Latin American studies programs sponsors student trips to Cuba. But the public institutions in Florida — we’re just dead in the water right now.”
Still, Prado places the elimination of communism ahead of academic research.
“I’m all for that they don’t allow us to go,” he said.
Many policymakers share his view.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was unavailable for comment Tuesday about the UT trip, but his staff pointed to his past statements on normalizing relations with Cuba.
“This is not about promoting democracy and freedom in Cuba,” Rubio testified to Congress after Obama instituted the People to People connection. “This is nothing more than tourism. ... A source of millions of dollars in the hands of the Castro government that they use to oppress the Cuban people.”
Marfise understands this point of view.
The UT athletic director grew up in Chicago with neighbors who left Cuba because of the oppression they saw at the hands of Fidel Castro.
Marfise always favored a policy of economic alienation. But no more.
“It is only my personal opinion,” he said, “but bringing people together is the way to go. It helps us to realize that people are people. We all bleed. We all cry. We are all similar.”
He did hesitate at first about the trip by the baseball team because Cuba remains a communist nation and because he was concerned about the players’ safety.
UT’s International Program sends two groups of students to Cuba each year, so he asked some of them about their experiences. They told him Cuba was the safest Latin American country they had visited.
“My primary concern was their safety,” he said. “Once my mindset was changed, I was excited to send them.”
Each UT athletic team can travel internationally every four years. Marfise said he would be open to allowing the baseball team to return to Cuba but would prefer they choose a different destination.
“We’ve been there now,” he said. “We want to spread good will to other countries, not just Cuba. So we’ll see what comes up.”
Prado said he still hopes to visit Cuba one day. He wants to see where his parents grew up and where he was born.
And he hopes to take a USF baseball team with him.
“But I will not go,” he added, “until the whole regime is done.”