When we think of Cuba, perhaps sports aren’t the first thing that comes to mind, but just like any other nation, the inhabitants of this island love getting active and taking part in a number of different sporting activities.
Yet despite the popularity of many athletic pastimes, there is one sport that the wonderful populous of this island country hold dearest in their heart, and it might just surprise you.
The Shocking National Sport Of Cuba
The most popular sport in Cuba is – drum roll, please – BASEBALL!!! Yep, it’s true, the Cuban people are baseball crazy.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s so “shocking” that baseball is Cuba’s national sport of choice.
After all, it’s an established American institution played the world over.
Well, to ascertain why this seems like something of a curveball, we have to delve into Cuba’s history and explore its relationship with the USA.
Why Is Baseball A Strange Choice For Cuba?
Before the Cuban revolution, the USA was all too embroiled in Cuban affairs.
US influence over Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt Prime Minister of Cuba, granted America access to the resource-rich lands and oceans of the nation.
With the US sinking its economic teeth into Cuba at the expense of the natives, anti-Americanism galvanized nationalist sentiment that had already been seething for decades due to the continued corruption of the nation’s leaders.
This brimming discontent would eventually inspire the Castro brothers to form a rebellious group known as the 26th of July Movement, which would engage in guerilla tactics over the course of a 5-year resistance against the military dictatorship of Batista.
By December 1958, Castro and his renegades had toppled Batista’s government and seized power for the 26th of July Movement that would eventually become the Communist Party of Cuba.
As a means of reclaiming Cuba for the natives, one of Castro’s first major actions was to nationalize all industry, thereby severing the exploitative reach of the US.
In reaction, the US imposed an embargo on all trade pertaining to Cuban interest, laying the foundation of a political-economic scuffle that would culminate in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Over the following years, Fidel Castro and his comrades would rule by socialist ideology, dismantle the minuscule ruling class for whom wealth was sickeningly concentrated, and chase out residual capitalist and fundamentally American notions.
This is why it’s so strange that baseball became such a cultural phenomenon in Cuba, as, arguably, there’s nothing more American than the game of baseball.
But there’s a reason the good old game stuck around!
How Did Baseball Reach Cuba?
It wasn’t the USA’s economic colonialism that brought the sport to the island nation.
Rather, it was Cubans returning from the States that introduced baseball to the Cuban population, well before the Cuban revolution.
The Cubans responsible for the migration of baseball had been international students in US colleges.
Upon returning to their homeland, they brought the game with them and irrevocably changed the fabric of Cuban national identity forever.
Nemesio Guillot was one of these students and is widely considered to be one of the driving forces in the sport’s early proliferation.
In 1868, he and his brother, Ernesto Guillot, established the Habana Baseball Club, the very first Cuban baseball team.
The people of Cuba were receptive to the sport, adopting it quickly as a means of replacing the national sport of bullfighting that has been forcefully implanted into the culture by Spanish tyranny.
Baseball became, not just a fun pass time, but an act of cultural resistance against Spanish rule, and so powerful a symbol it became that the Spanish outlawed the game in 1869 during the first war of Cuban independence, a mere year after its introduction.
As of yet, anti-American sentiment was yet to grow, and although baseball is as American as Huck Finn and corn dogs, it was seen as an expression of freedom and became an integral part of national pride and cultural identity.
It was a sport that they themselves had chosen, that their own people had introduced, not one systematically inserted into their culture by an oppressive colonizing nation.
How The Post-Revolution Government Felt About Baseball
So, the Castro brothers, alongside brother-in-arms, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, have conquered Batista’s corrupt military dictatorship, a new hybrid communist ethos is formalized, and socialism sweeps the nation.
The tiny group of wealthy elites in Cuba is phased out, and capitalist American influence becomes a terribly derogatory thing…
How does the new government deal with baseball, a sport that has become synonymous with Cuban culture and lifestyle?
On the one hand, it’s an American institution, and on the other, it’s a symbol of national pride and resistance against tyranny.
Well, Castro decides that not only can baseball stay but that it should be celebrated, that it is a symbol of the strength of the people and their resistance against corruption, a symbol of justice and righteous rebellion — Baseball wasn’t going anywhere!
But it wasn’t going to stay the same.
The Socialist Model
Although Castro and his comrades adored baseball and understood that it had, in many ways, become the lifeblood of Cuban nationalism, the new government took issue with a structural aspect of the game’s organization.
American baseball (and other sports), being carried out primarily as means of profiting off the masses, meant that it was at risk of corruption, so the communist government simply eradicated that aspect of the game.
The professional league was replaced by an amateur institution for which people would play, not to amass wealth for themselves or others, but celebrate national identity and to enjoy the sport in a purer form.
It was a noble undertaking, but one that would become marred by unfortunate events, most notably, the fixing of games and the defection of top players to US teams due to the worsening poverty of the nation.
Although many sports are played and enjoyed in Cuba, particularly boxing, baseball is the undisputed champion of the sporting landscape in this intriguing island nation.
This may be seen as something of a contradiction considering the hostile relationship shared by Cuba and the USA, but what we have to understand is that baseball doesn’t strictly belong to America, rather, the sport is on a journey, and its roots can actually be traced to the English games of rounders and cricket.
Similarly to America, Cuba altered and adopted the game as their own, and to this day, it’s an essential part of the Cuban cultural identity.