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Opening doors to Cuba in a baseball game

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
St. Paul, Minn.

Fr. Dennis Dease never forgot that a ping-pong ball opened the door to China. The 1972 rapprochement between Beijing and Washington began with a 1971 Chinese invitation to the U.S. table-tennis team to visit China.

What worked for one communist country might hold the key to diplomatic ties with another, thought Dease, who hopes that a baseball game might be the key in the case of Cuba. In December, Dease, the president of the University of St. Thomas here, returned from his fourth trip to Cuba in nine years. It was during an earlier trip to the University of Havana that St. Thomas faculty heard that the Havana school wanted to host the St. Thomas team.

During Dease’s latest stay in Havana, he met with Cuban Minister of Higher Education Dr. Fernando Vecino Alegret to request permission for the “Tommies” to play the University of Havana in Havana. Dease received the official invitation by phone from the University of Havana president, Dr. Juan Vela Valdez, Jan. 3rd. Thirty members of the St. Thomas baseball team, including coaches, and 10 university faculty and staff members, will be in Havana Jan. 22 through Jan. 29. The two teams will match up for one or more games Jan. 26 and/or Jan. 27.

St. Thomas has already received two licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department to participate in educational and baseball activities. When the Cubans say, “Play ball!” the game will be the first played by a Catholic school and only the second ever played by an American collegiate team in Cuba since the communist take-over of the island in 1959. In 1986 a Johns-Hopkins University team played in Cuba.

A second game is envisioned this spring between the two teams in St. Paul. “Maybe they can even play the Minnesota Twins while they’re in town,” Dease told NCR.

But the effort is about more than sports, said Dease, a priest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul archdiocese who has long held a special interest in Cuba. He has learned Spanish since making his first humanitarian visit in 1991 and has many contacts at the University of Havana and at the Polytechnic Institute José Antonio Echeverría. Besides Dease, some 42 other St. Thomas faculty, staff, trustees and students have visited Cuba in recent years. Four Cuban faculty and staff and a graduate student from the University of Havana have visited and lectured at St. Thomas during the 1999 spring and fall semesters, and more are expected in 2000.

The groundwork for such academic ties was laid last January during a weeklong St. Thomas-sponsored faculty development trip to Cuba. Dr. Miriam Williams, St. Thomas’ associate vice president for academic affairs, compared the experience to “a match-making trip, sort of like a dating service.” She said all 17 St. Thomas participants had found a match with Cuban staff and faculty holding similar interests.

Besides the baseball game, a dozen other projects have been finalized or proposed as part of a three-year academic and cultural exchange between St. Thomas and Cuba. They include technology seminars in Havana taught by St. Thomas software professors and a course on modern Cuba to be presented in St. Paul by historians from St. Thomas and from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and by three visiting Cuban scholars. St. Thomas’ English department is planning literature and writing workshops in Havana. One of the St. Thomas language professors, Dr. Sonia Feigenbaum, will make her third trip to Cuba this month as part of her project of translating the poetry of three contemporary Cuban women poets.

Even St. Thomas’ Justice and Peace Studies faculty plan to develop a service-learning course in Cuba, most likely with the nongovernmental Martin Luther King Center in Havana.

How did a Catholic university in the Midwest that prepares about half of its 10,000 students for careers in the business of capitalism come to engage the Cubans? “The Cuban people have a lot to teach us,” Dease said, noting Cuba’s highly trained medical and educational corps. “The Twin Cities are 2,000 miles from Havana, and there’s not as much opposition to trade with Cuba here as you find in Miami or New Jersey,” he said.

While the U.S. government has banned tourist and business travel to the island as part of its trade embargo, it has made exceptions for humanitarian aid and visits designed to encourage democratic exchange.

Just as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald delivered jazz to a closed-door Soviet Union in the 1950s, Dease hopes that Coach Dennis Denning and his 20 “Tommies,” who were NCAA Division III runners-up in 1999, will inaugurate a round of academic and economic opportunity for the universities involved.

The trip, and a possible return visit to Minnesota by the Cuban team, is being funded by a $100,000 grant from the Carl and Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000