As US president Barack Obama ends his historic trip by watching a game they have in common, Fidel Castro’s son tells Paul Martin how the US import his country loves, baseball, is being transformed

By Paul Martin in Havana

In years gone by, Fidel Castro himself would hurl the first ball at the striker when Cuban baseball teams competed in the Estadio Latinoamericano. Now the ailing former leader may catch  the game on television — but his son Antonio will be there.

Clean-cut, charming, fluent in English and sporting a smart suit, Antonio  Castro-Soto seems to inhabit a different world from the murals depicting his father — bearded and in green fatigues, gripping a baseball bat — in most Cuban stadiums. However, he shares Fidel’s passion for the sport: he is vice-president of Cuba’s baseball federation and has run onto the ballpark as national team doctor.

The orthopaedic surgeon, 47, is Fidel’s son from his second marriage, and nephew of current president Raul. A prime mover of “baseball diplomacy”, he said: “Baseball is not just a sport, it’s a culture. “When a boy is born, his father gives him a bat and ball. Through baseball, we teach our children everything about life.”

When Fidel came to power in 1959 the revolutionary leader felt sports were “shamefully” neglected, so bolstered several with state support “to help develop the character of young people.  I am proud to carry that on,” added Mr Castro-Soto, speaking in Havana.

He  does not deny Cuban baseball — brought from the US in the 1860s — is in crisis. “A player can go from a top team in Cuba, where you can’t even get bats, to making millions playing for the Yankees or Dodgers or any other Major League team,” he has told ESPN recently. “We’ve lost a lot of ballplayers.”

Twenty-one Cuban stars are in lucrative Major League Baseball. Because of the trade embargo they cannot go direct to the USA and play, so they often defect while on Latin American tours, or, more recently, have been smuggled across the Mexican border, becoming bargaining chips for people traffickers.

Mr Castro-Soto, who has visited US baseball’s headquarters in New York, proposes “realistic solutions” that would require legislation by America and Cuba: “Our ballplayers earned the right to play in other leagues and measure themselves against a higher level.

“They should be able to do it without fear and come back to play with their national team and … in leagues here. No one loses, and they don’t have to be separated from family and friends.”

The old Communist dogma dictated big prize money went to the state not athletes. Mr Castro-Soto backs allowing exiled stars to be citizens or residents of both countries without their wealth being confiscated as capitalist loot: “Now we have artists, musicians who travel outside and bring money back.  In life, you have a social difference.”

The breakthrough came in December.  At Matanzas, 60 miles from the capital, a US and a Cuban flag fluttered over a huge portrait of Fidel as his son watched an exhibition game involving players from both nations. Among them — previously labelled “traitors” by the regime — were four of Cuba’s self-exiled stars.

As Antonio stated: “This is just the beginning.”