WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches stood starkly divided between Cubans and Venezuelans Monday, as fans flocked to the stadium dressed in the flags, hats and jerseys of their home countries as they battled in the opening game of the Baseball Americas Qualifier.
But outside the stadium, protestors demonstrated in solidarity against the communist governments that govern each nation.
“Socialism is simply destruction,” said Eric Jimenez, a protest leader who emigrated from Cuba in 2014. “We cannot allow that to continue in Cuba and Venezuela or anywhere else. So we’re here to show that many people are against it and many are willing to speak out."
As for the opening game of the tournament, which will help determine the final field for the Summer Olympics, Venezuela held on for a 6-5 victory. The win was the first for Venezuela in a world-level tournament against Cuba since the 1953 World Cup
In the first Olympic qualifying game in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the Dominican Republic defeated Puerto Rico, 5-2. Luis Liberato's tiebreaking home run in the sixth inning was the game-winner.
Luke Williams and Jarren Duran combined for six hits out of the top two spots in the order, and Mark Kolosvery homered, as the United States defeated Nicaragua 7-1 late Monday in Port St. Lucie. The U.S. had 14 hits before a crowd of 3,500, setting up a matchup with Monday’s other Group A winner, the Dominican Republic, on Tuesday in West Palm Beach. In Monday's late game in West Palm Beach,
The two early games marked the first international baseball competition in a year and a half due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In West Palm Beach, the protesters numbered in the hundreds and transcended class, gender and age. But the diverse group consolidated its message into a simple but poignant phrase: “patria y vida”
“This means homeland and life,” Jimenez said. “The Castro regime used another phrase: homeland or death. But life is so much more, life is humbling, with people that think like you and people that don’t."
The slogan was popularized by Cuban singer Yotuel Romero earlier this year, and “patria y vida” found its way into the ballpark through signs, T-shirts and a loud second-inning chant.
Demonstrators displayed anti-Communist symbols, advocated for the freedom of Cuban political prisoners and called for the overthrow of the regimes that currently rule Cuba and Venezuela.
While a majority of the fans were Cuban, a number of Venezuelan fans took part in the protests and many signs and banners suggested a common struggle for the two counties.
“Venezuelans and Cubans are fighting for the same thing, for freedom," Jimenez said. “The hunger, the oppression, the restrictions on the press, they went through the same thing Cuba went through 60 years ago.”
Palm Beach County maintained a limited capacity due to COVID-19 protocols, but fans continued to protest in and outside of the stadium throughout the game. Chants of “libertidad” and “patria y vida'' rang inside and outside the stadium.
Cuban baseball made political headlines last week when infielder César Prieto defected from the team after his arrival in the United States. Prieto increased his chance of joining an MLB organization by leaving his home country, and many protestors supported Prieto’s decision.
“We’re fighting for liberty and I support the liberty of the players,” said Luis Esperon, manager of the “Make Cuba Great Again” clothing line. “I want freedom for Cuba and my community so I have to support him.”
Fellow Cuban defector and former Marlins pitching great Livan Hernandez strode to the mound to hurl the ceremonial first pitch, drawing raucous applause from the socially distanced crowd. Hernandez’s pedigree didn’t linger on the mound, however, as Cuba allowed three runs in an erratic first inning.
Erisbel Arruebarrbuena halved Cuba’s deficit with a two-run blast into deep left field, but Venezuela sealed its opening-round victory with a pair of solo shots from Hernan Perez and Robinson Chirinos.
The mass of Cuban demonstrators were escorted away from the ballpark toward the end of the eighth inning.
While the protestors meandered back to the parking lot, Cuban outfielder Lisban Correa just about reached them with a two-run moonshot that landed on the left field promenade. Correa’s ninth inning homer set up a dramatic finish, but the Venezuelan bullpen did just enough to hold on for the victory.
“We really thought we were going to win it there in the ninth," Cuban manager Armando Fetter said. "But we’re still learning and we’ve learned from this, so we believe that we will take the next game.”
Each team has two more pool play games on Tuesday and Wednesday before the semifinal round begins on Friday. The teams move north to Port St. Lucie Tuesday when Venezuela plays Columbia at 1 p.m., and Cuba plays Canada at 7 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Cuban, Venezuelan fans protest communism at Olympic baseball qualifier