US, Cuba friendly latest chapter of sports diplomacy

Los Angeles (AFP) – When the United States take to the field to face Cuba at Havana’s Estadio Pedro Marrero on Friday, it will mark another step on the road towards normalization of relations between the former foes.

In July last year, Cuba and the United States brought more than half a century of enmity to an end when they restored diplomatic ties which had been cut in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. 

A month earlier, the blossoming mood of rapprochement was given a sprinkling of goodwill when a New York Cosmos team including Brazilian legend Pele in their delegation traveled to Havana to face Cuba in a friendly. 

It highlighted the role sport has played to thaw hitherto chilly relations between the two nations, a strategic tool the United States has made use of repeatedly for decades. 

As far back as 1934, a team of US baseball all-stars led by Babe Ruth was embarking on a goodwill tour of Japan in a visit the trip’s sponsors hoped would lead to a reduction in tensions between the two powers. 

The effect of that trip was limited however. No diplomatic breakthrough resulted and seven years later the two countries were locked in a bloody war. 

A more successful outcome followed the most famous example of sport being used to build bridges — the “ping-pong diplomacy” exchanges between China and the United States in the 1970s which yielded a tangible improvement in Sino-US relations. 

Until the US squad of table tennis players and journalists arrived in China in April 1971, no US team had visited the country since the ruling Communist Party took power in 1949. 

Two months after that landmark visit, the United States lifted its embargo against China. 

In February 1972, President Nixon paid a historic visit to China, meeting Chairman Mao Zedong and ending 25 years of separation in a tour the US leader dubbed as “the week that changed the world.” 

– Mutual desire –

Derek Shearer, former US Ambassador to Finland during the Clinton Administration and professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, notes however that the success of ping-pong diplomacy hinged on its ability to tap into a mutual desire between the two countries to build relations. 

“What was important about ping-pong diplomacy is that if you’re trying to resolve a very difficult diplomatic issue like normalizing relations between two countries, other things have to be going in the right direction so that sports diplomacy fits into that,” Shearer told AFP. 

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