A Grand Slam

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It isn't a desire for balance or fairness that drives a station like Channel 10 to do that. It's fear.

Because Channel 10 didn't allow me a chance to hear from Mayor Schmoke in any meaningful way, I decided to call him myself. We spoke prior to last week's game. Schmoke sat with Castro during the exhibition game in Havana, and spent several days touring Cuba. This was Schmoke's second trip to Cuba, the first being his visit immediately following the Pope's historic sojourn this past year. "Clearly it is not a political system that I would want to live under," Schmoke said of Cuba. But merely going there, he added, "doesn't mean you are accepting Castro's point of view."

He said the response to his trip, as well as to the game itself, has been heartening. "Both my mail and the phone calls I've received have been overwhelmingly supportive of the visit," he said. "And I think it's because I tried to keep it just a people-to-people exchange. I wasn't trying to make broader political statements. I know our two countries still have significant policy disagreements and that those matters are going to get resolved at a much higher political level than mine. What I knew was that we had two countries where the national pastimes are baseball, and I also know there are many other issues where we share a common passion, such as a love for music and the arts. I just think it helps to reduce misunderstandings when we can actually come together, face-to-face, and talk about what really bothers us.

"My personal view," the mayor continued, "is that the embargo as a policy is an idea whose time should be over. I think that as a matter of policy we should be looking to end the embargo. I personally think the embargo is counterproductive because it is one of the things that allows Fidel to help retain some of his power by looking to the north and talking about these evil oppressors who would restrict the flow of medicines and the flow of goods, and that allows at least some people to rally around him. I also think it hurts our relations with other countries around the world."

He recalled the first time he saw Castro in person; it was the inauguration of South African President Nelson Mandela. "I was struck by the way in which government leaders from around the world greeted him," Schmoke said. "It is quite a disconnect when you see him greeted with such praise by leaders around the world, and yet here in our own country he is the ultimate political pariah."

He hadn't actually spoken with Castro until the ballgame in Havana. "When I saw him, it was like meeting a historic figure," the mayor said. "This was someone I had read about most of my life. The guy has a very imposing presence. He did not speak English at all in public. I'm aware that he can speak English, but he did not with us. So we just spoke through an interpreter, and all the conversations were about baseball."

Schmoke said he is planning a host of other exchanges with Cuba. A chess tournament is being organized. "We'd like to see some of their musicians play at our cultural festival," he noted, "and some of our musicians would like to go down there." There will be an exchange of teachers to discuss the problems of illiteracy, as well as an exchange of doctors to address public-health issues.

"There are things we can learn from them," Schmoke said. "Clearly on the public-health side, there are things they have done in primary care within neighborhoods that we could benefit from. I think their infant-mortality rate generally was lower than some of the areas of our city hardest hit by poverty, and so we will try to learn from the successes of other countries where we can."

This past December Schmoke sent a delegation to Cuba from Baltimore's Jewish community, and already the group is planning to return to the island to work on restoring a Jewish cemetery in Havana. "I am not trying to lead the charge on any particular political direction," Schmoke explained. "I'm just trying to open some dialogue and keep the exchanges going on the people-to-people level."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede