Solidarity, Counter-Hegemony, and Development: Exploring New Dimensions of Cuba's Sport-Based Internationalism

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This analysis examines the place and role of sport within Cuban foreign policy, development initiatives, and internationalism and uses these understandings as a basis for initial comparison against emergent trends in the mobilization of sport for international development. While sport has recently been formally recognized, by the likes of the United Nations (UN), as contributing to advancing social development, particularly in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), Cuba has been incorporating sport into its international programming for years. Indeed, Cuba's broad approach to internationalism is recognized as a relatively unique form of foreign policy and diplomacy, one committed to long-term relationships of cooperation and solidarity with various countries around the world (Huish and Kirk 2007; Saney 2004). Employing soft power that seeks advantage and position through bilateral relationships, Cuba has built trade and cooperative relations with 154 countries, despite its relative isolation amidst the US embargo (Erisman and Kirk 2006; Kirk and Erisman 2009; Nye 2004). For example, as of 2011, Cuba has 42,000 collaborators working in 101 countries ( Of these personnel, 38,000 are directly related to the provision of health services in 78 nations, resulting in considerable attention on, and discussion of, the impact of Cuban medical internationalism on a global scale (Feinsilver 1993; Harris 2009; Huish 2008; Saney 2009).

Yet medical cooperation is only one dimension of Cuban internationalism. Similar efforts exist in education, technical cooperation, and within the field of sport and physical education. There are three streams within Cuba's sport-based internationalism. First, El Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educacion Fisica y Recreacion (INDER; The National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation) employs hundreds of Cuban coaches and physical educators to work with other Cuban brigades in marginalized communities throughout the global South. In Venezuela, for example, dozens of coaches work alongside Cuban doctors in the program barrio adentro ("into the neighbourhood"). After the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, Cuban coaches participated in relief efforts with medical professionals. Second, El Escuela Internacional de Educacion Fisica y Deporte (EIEFD; The International School of Physical Education and Sport) supports capacity for resource-poor communities in the global South by training coaches and physical trainers to serve in marginalized communities. To date, the school has received a total of 1,386 students from 76 countries ( In several African nations, EIEFD graduates have returned home to build community-level sport education programs (personal communication, INDER administrators, July 2011). Third, INDER contracts hundreds of its own expert coaches to various countries who wish to enhance their performance in elite and international sport. These contracts are designed to build capacity at the elite level in foreign countries but also to collect much-needed hard currency for Cuba; contracts have been signed with Italy for baseball and with India for boxing (personal communication, INDER administrators, July 2011). This positioning of sport as a tactical strategy of garnering resources and political support is particularly noteworthy as Cuba enters a new era of domestic economic reform.

Given these projects, Cuba's sport-based internationalism has multiple significances for scholars of Latin American studies, as well as of sport and international development. Specifically, the case illustrates that sport holds a position within Cuban internationalism that has been relatively underexplored to date. Second, Cuba shows that sport can be included within comprehensive foreign policy and development strategies, rather than viewed simply as a tool for development. Unlike civil society-led development strategies that tend to operate in relatively autonomous fields, Cuban internationalism situates programs of health care and sport within broader, cohesive development strategies and political commitments that are still supportive of Cuba's foreign policy interests. …