Abajo Fidel

Ain’t free speech a bitch?

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.

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.”

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.

We’ll have to see what kind of “demonstrations” we see in Havana this weekend — but I suspect they’ll get much more airtime than the few seconds that Enrique got.

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