Baseball diplomacy: Obama and Castro take in Havana game

US President Barack Obama (centre) and Cuban President Raul Castro (right) attending a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Havana on March 22.
US President Barack Obama (centre) and Cuban President Raul Castro (right) attending a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Havana on March 22. PHOTO: EPA

HAVANA (AFP) - US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro sat side-by-side on Tuesday (March 22) for a symbolism-laden game of baseball between Cuba's national team and the Major League's Tampa Bay Rays.

Both tieless and wearing sunglasses, Mr Obama and Mr Castro laughed and chatted in their prime seats at the Latinoamericano stadium in Havana, using baseball diplomacy to cement their breakthrough in ending decades of US-Cuban hostility.

For Mr Obama, the occasion capped the first visit by a sitting US president to the communist island in 88 years.

Cuba had given a facelift to the stadium in Havana in preparation for a game meant to underline how much the United States and Cuba have in common, despite their long, bitter political divide.

While most of Latin America is football-mad, Cuba and several Caribbean islands have long followed the US lead, adopting - and excelling in - baseball, perhaps the quintessential US sport.

Myth has it that Mr Fidel Castro tried out for professional US teams in the 1940s, and even if the story is untrue, he's an avid fan of the game.

Before the Cuba-Tampa Bay game got under way, the packed stadium - with 55,000 on hand - observed a moment of silence for the victims of bombings in Brussels earlier in the day.

The game was won by the Florida-based Rays 4-1, but US-Cuban relations were clearly the winner, with the crowd cheering Mr Obama, and a choir performing spine-tingling renditions of the countries' national anthems.

The game also reminded Americans and Cubans of their shared histories.

Mrs Rachel Robinson, the 93-year-old widow of American great Jackie Robinson - the first African American to play in the big leagues back in 1947 - was on hand.

As Mr Obama, the first black US president, noted earlier, both Cuba and the United States were built in some measure by African slave labour in lands settled by European immigrants.

Communist Cuba claims to enforce racial and social equality, but critics say Afro-Cubans are underrepresented among the party's top ranks.

There was also bittersweet controversy around the game, reflecting the unequal - if now far friendlier - relationship between the neighbours.

Cubans long have been upset at an exodus of stars fleeing the impoverished island to seek lucrative contracts in the US Major League.

Most Cubans earn about US$20 (S$27) a month. Sports stars make more, but nothing like the huge salaries of international leagues.

Now Cuba - with a population of just over 11 million - fears that closer ties with the United States will lead to a dust-raising stampede of baseball greats to the airport.

During the Cold War, defecting players were considered persona non grata, although now they and their hard currency are welcomed back to the country.

The game was the last event in Mr Obama's three-day visit to Havana before he boarded Air Force One for a trip to Argentina.

Also on hand for the game were Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball Players Association director Tony Clark and Secretary of State John Kerry.