Cuban paper, sports group decry anti-Castro banner

Updated: March 10, 2006, 8:56 PM ET
Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- While Cuba played the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, a spectator in the stands raised a sign saying: "Down with Fidel," sparking an international incident that escalated Friday with the velocity of a major league fastball.

The image of the man holding the sign behind home plate was beamed live Thursday night to millions of TV viewers, including those in Cuba. The top Cuban official at the game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan rushed to confront the man.

Puerto Rican police quickly intervened and took the Cuban official -- Angel Iglesias, vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports -- to a nearby police station where they lectured him about free speech.

"We explained to him that here the constitutional right to free expression exists and that it is not a crime," police Col. Adalberto Mercado was quoted as saying in El Nuevo Dia, a San Juan daily.

Local organizers of the tournament responded by banning posters of a political nature, but a top police official said his officers would not enforce the ban.

"The police of Puerto Rico will not interfere at any time with any type of expression," Puerto Rico Police Chief Pedro Toledo said.

The brouhaha gathered steam Friday when Cuba's Communist Party newspaper, Granma, called the sign-waving "a cowardly incident." Cuba's Revolutionary Sports Movement exhorted Cubans to demonstrate in Havana late Friday, saying U.S. and Puerto Rican authorities were involved in "the cynical counterrevolutionary provocations."

One of the protesters who showed up in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana bore a sign that said: "Down with Bush." Star Cuban athletes were among the hundreds of protesters. An official Cuban communique urged the Cuban team to "respond to the provocations with hits, home runs, strikes, outs."

The Cuban Baseball Federation, in a statement released Friday in San Juan, said authorities failed to provide security and preserve the spirit of the sporting event. The Cubans nonetheless decided to remain in the tournament after Puerto Rican promoters made guarantees, the federation said in a statement without elaborating.

An anti-Castro Web site, therealcuba.com, identified the protester only as Enrique, and carried his own account of the incident.

Enrique said that during the warmup before the game, he flashed another sign denouncing Castro -- this one saying "Baseball players yes, Tyrants no" -- to the Cuban leader's son, Tony Castro, who is the Cuban team doctor.

"He looked down and kept walking and I shouted, 'Eso es para tu papa ['That is for your dad'].' ... I know he heard that," Enrique said, according to the account in the Web site.

Mercado said the spectator, and a second one who also waved signs, had tickets for the section behind home plate, but had moved out of their seats so their signs would appear on TV. Cuban state TV was showing the ESPN signal, and the signs were briefly visible on television in Cuba.

Police later told the pair to return to their seats, Mercado said, adding that Iglesias was never under arrest.

"The Cubans were upset with the incident that happened last night, and they want to make sure it doesn't happen again," said John Blundell, spokesman for Major League Baseball, which helped establish the tournament. "We are doing everything that we can to ensure the safety of fans and the delegations."

Cuba downed the Netherlands 11-2. Cuba has also beat Panama in the first round of competition and was playing Puerto Rico Friday night.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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