Category Archives: cuba

Fidel was everywhere

Cuban president Fidel Castro (C) participates in the "wave" while watching the Pan American games women's basketball semi-final between Cuba and the United States of America, 10 August 1991, in the Latinoamericano stadium. Cuba won 86-81.

I remember Fidel as something of a shopping mall Santa Claus, showing up everywhere that our small band of American reporters went while covering the 1991 Pan American Games in Cuba. It was as if there was more than one Fidel, like Mickey Mouse at Disney World, materializing at the basketball arena, the track stadium, the water polo pool, the softball field. Often on the same day.

At a Cuba vs. U.S. women’s basketball game, Fidel joined the crowd in doing the wave. He posed for pictures with medal winners of multiple sports. He so insinuated himself into the operation, personally hanging medals around winners’ necks—especially Cuban winners, but others, too—that U.S. sports officials began to grumble that he was violating Olympic and Pan Am protocol.


Technically, as head of state of the Pan Am host nation, his only involvement was to officially open the games with a brief, scripted declaration, then become a mere spectator. But he played all the parts in the production.

At one point during the Games, there were rumors that he had suffered a heart attack, gossip immediately put to rest when he showed up at the Pan Am bowling lanes. We Yanks constantly were on the lookout at public gatherings for the familiar bearded presence, so easy to spot in his green fatigues (the emperor’s old clothes), an exercise we likened to a weird game of “Where’s Waldo?”


We were just sports journalists, but what was eminently clear then, as in the reports in the days since Fidel’s death at 90, was how omnipresent he was in all Cubans’ lives. In the wake of his 1959 revolution, he had engendered fierce loyalty among the public for bringing education and health care to the lowest classes, yet he eventually became widely feared for restrictions—often brutal—on speech and assembly, and hated by Cuban exiles for his strong-arm nationalization of private enterprise.

At the time of the ’91 Pan Am Games, Cuba had just lost its most dependable sugar daddy with the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, and Fidel’s economic policies were failing most citizens. Yet he toured the Games in a caravan of Mercedes limousines, while most of the populace lived in ramshackle buildings and had to stand in line for a daily ration of two loaves of bread, no bigger than baseballs, as well as each family’s once-in-every-nine-days schedule to obtain a chicken. So much for Fidel’s defiant maxim of “Socialism or Death.”

Ironies were everywhere. Cuban athletes delivered to us the party line that representing their country, and by extension Fidel’s revolution, in amateur competition was far preferable to lucrative professional careers abroad. Yet they acknowledged that sports champions received well above the average Cuban’s income, were afforded free cars and free apartments and never had to wait in bread lines. (This, even as there were persistent reports of Cuban jocks defecting in search of U.S. contracts.)

Too, there was obvious tourist apartheid. A colleague and I visited Veradero Beach, two hours east of Havana, a playground for rich capitalists on holiday from Europe and Canada (no regular Cubans allowed), a sort of Hilton Head resort smack in the middle of epidemic poverty. We drove there in a rented new Nissan, available to foreign visitors while Cubans were stuck with decaying pre-revolution American cars or rickety little Russian Ladas.

Then there was the incongruity of the Pan Am shooting competition in Cotorro, an isolated piece of land just east of Havana, where a small band of U.S. military personnel were in full evidence. They had guns. And they didn’t miss.

It was a thoroughly apolitical situation, of course—members of the Marines or U.S. police forces who competed on the American team as amateur target-practice elites. No counter revolution or anything like that was going on. But it was such an unlikely scene, given Fidel’s rigid rejection of U.S. imperialists. The Yank sharpshooters were roundly cheered by Cuban spectators as they blazed away at flying clay pigeons and stationary targets.

A 33-year-old Air Force captain named Bill Roy set a world record for accuracy, then took pains to argue that it was “an opportunity to be anything but an Ugly American.” He said his real job was as an English professor at the Air Force Academy, “teaching Beowulf and his search for fame” to academy freshman. Still, You Know Who was in everybody’s thoughts.

“Why isn’t Fidel here?” American shooting team member Roxanne Thompson wanted to know. “He’s a military guy.”

Back at our hotel in downtown Havana, the Habana Libre, I had been getting calls from an apparent government functionary, inviting me to share a drink. (His name was Dmitry or Sergei or Yuri, some Russian name that was not unusual for a Cuban after all those years of USSR relationships.) I kept putting him off with the excuse—based on fact—that I had a busy, unpredictable schedule.

Finally, he corralled me in the hotel lobby. He said he just wanted to talk about what I thought of Cuba and Cubans and the Games, though fellow U.S. reporters said they suspected he wanted to monitor—or somehow already was monitoring—whether I was reporting on issues beyond mere sport.

I was, of course. A few details about how Cubans could be fined, and possibly arrested, for fraternizing with foreigners. About the ghost-town aspects of Havana shops that were available to citizens, in contrast to the stylish restaurants and bars frequented by visitors. About a day trip to the Bay of Pigs, site of the ill-conceived 1961 U.S. attempt to overthrow Fidel with a brigade of Cuban exiles, and Fidel’s emergence from that victory as a charismatic leader. About a brief pass through Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel’s first attempt at a revolution in 1953, against president Fulgencio Batista—believed by many Cubans to be a tool of the U.S.-based mafia—had failed, leaving bullet holes in the walls of the Moncada Barracks that still were visible.


Nothing came of Dmitry’s (or Yuri’s) interest in my work, though our brief chat was one more reminder of the ubiquitous Fidel.

During that 1991 assignment, some of us wondered if, without Fidel, Cuba would evolve away from the dictator’s half-century of sulfurous anti-U.S. rule and an intolerance of homegrown dissent. Or would Cuba return to the Batista days, with a small upper echelon of super-wealthy landowners and affluent tourists, again consigning the majority of Cubans to be an underpaid and under-educated servant class.

Back then, it was hard to see that he ever would be out of the picture.




Cuba and golf


There is a 1954 television episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy buys Ricky a set of golf clubs for their anniversary, then regrets it when he and pal Fred Mertz become obsessed with the game.

Until the fawning coverage of New York Mets’ outfielder Yoenis Cespedes’ recent tour of the Palm City, Fla., links during another relentlessly uneventful baseball spring training, that “Lucy” show may have been the last widely disseminated account of a prominent Cuban playing golf.

It is showing one’s age to know that the TV role of Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban singer/bandleader, was played by real Cuban-born singer/bandleader Dezi Arnaz. (Ask you grandmother.) But when it comes to the old club-and-ball sport on that Caribbean island, time has pretty much stood still between the addictions of Ricky and Cespedes.


That’s because golf was banned in Cuba after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, who mocked the game and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower’s devotion to it. Castro’s transformation of the island from a playground for rich American capitalists to his Communist template—“Socialism or Death”—included the demise of all but one of the nation’s courses.

A rare photograph unearthed at a 2014 London auction, interpreted as ridiculing Yanqui extravagance, showed Castro and fellow Marxist rebel Che Guevara playing golf in military fatigues and combat boots shortly after the revolution. Sort of a farewell to irons in Cuba.


Layouts, where golfing greats Sam Snead and Ben Hogan once played, disappeared. Only a small nine-hole course near the Havana airport, built by the British in 1953, was preserved to entertain diplomats and foreign businessmen. Not until the Spaniards constructed a plush resort in the early 1990s on Varadero Beach, two hours from Havana, was a second Cuban course carved out. Also for foreigner duffers only.

So, while sport was declared by the Castro government to be “the right of the people” in Cuba, that didn’t include golf. To a young Yoenis Cespedes, the odds were approximately zero that he would have known the first thing about the game, since he was born in 1985 and raised in Campechuela on Cuba’s opposite coast from those two off-limits-to-Cubans courses.

In 1991, when I was in Cuba to cover the Pan American Games, I interviewed a fellow named Jorge Duque who, at the time, was the country’s only golf pro. His job was to offer lessons to visiting diplomats at the Havana course, then called the Diplo Club. “In Cuba, when you are born, if you are a boy,” Duque said then, “you are playing baseball or soccer or boxing. Those are in our blood. We never think of golf. It’s not part of our life.” Before training for the Diplo assignment, Duque knew only that golf “is that game you play with the bag, and you hit the ball. And that’s all. It’s like the moon. It’s like this”—he formed a circle with his hands—“and it has little holes and it’s up there.”


Baseball, of course, has been so widely played so well for so long in Cuba that the national team has been winning world, regional and Olympic championships since the 1930s. Fidel Castro himself, pre revolution, was briefly considered a pitching prospect by the old New York Giants. And even the end of U.S.-Cuba relations barely slowed the steady flow of Cuban baseball talent to the States. Since 1959, more than 90 Cubans have defected to play in the Majors. Cespedes is one of 10 to become All-Stars, and one of 27 Cubans on current big-league rosters.

But it wasn’t until shortly after Cespedes escaped the island in 2011 that Cuban officials announced preliminary approval to bring back the bourgeois excess of golf. Foreign developers concluded that Cuba’s almost desperate need for cash had nudged the government to turn to golf resorts in an attempt to lure free-spending tourists (besides Americans, still under the cold-war-era trade embargo, though President Obama has asked Congress to end it). There is a plan for four luxury resort projects and eventually as many as 16.

Things are changing. Next week Obama will become the first U.S. president since 1928 to visit Cuba, and the agenda of incremental improvement in the two nations’ dealings will include Obama’s presence at a baseball exhibition between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban national team.

Whether the opportunity to play golf (one of Obama’s enthusiasms, it happens) should be conflated with freedom and democracy is debatable. But, in the meantime, there may be no more obvious example of a conspicuous consumption capitalist than the fabulously paid ($75 million for three years) Cespedes, who paraded $1 million worth of personal vehicles into Mets camp and escorted a group of reporters to witness his U.S.-discovered upscale passion for golf. And that is in stark contrast to his homeland, which continues to look like something from a black-and-white “I Love Lucy” set.



The U.S., Cuba and baseball diplomacy

(N.Y. Daily News photo)

(N.Y. Daily News photo)

Anyone lucky enough to visit La Esquina Caliente in Havana’s El Parque Central immediately learns the exalted status of baseball in Cuba. There, at The Hot Corner of the island capital’s Central Park, men have been gathering for decades to passionately argue the value of players and teams.

It is the Cuban version of discourse that we Yanquis typically experience on barstools and sports talk radio, evidence of an unbroken spiritual link between Americans and Cubans in spite of a half-century of political polarization.

Baseball is their national pastime, too.

So, now that the Obama administration at last has moved to normalize relations with Cuba, what could be a more logical cultural exchange than sending the Tampa Bay Rays to the Caribbean island for an exhibition game next spring?

If all the details can be ironed out, that will be the first such tour by a Major League Baseball team since the Baltimore Orioles played a home-and-home exhibition against the Cuban national team in 1999. But it hardly would represent a new relationship, despite the decades of ideological hardball between the two nations.

As early as 1937, the New York Giants made Havana their spring training site, followed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941, ’42 and ’47 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953. When Jackie Robinson broke the majors’ color barrier in 1947, one benefit to training in Cuba was that country’s long history of racial integration.

In his acclaimed 1952 novel, “Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway—a Cuban resident for most of the 1940s and 1950s—had the fictitious Cuban fisherman Santiago talk baseball with his young companion, rhapsodizing about the Yankees and “the great DiMaggio.”

The 1959 Cuban revolution severed the island’s formal ties with Organized Baseball. But big-league teams, technically prevented from doing business in Cuba, found ways to get Latin American scouts into the country to evaluate the plentiful homegrown talent, and a fairly steady stream of Cuban defectors continued to find their way to the majors—Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman being some resent examples.

It might be worth remembering that a young Castro was once considered a pitching prospect by the Giants; that Havana was home to the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple-A affiliate Sugar Kings of the International League from 1954 to ’59; and that just months after Castro’s rebels ousted the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of president Fulgencio Batista, the Junior World Series was contested between the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers and the I.L. pennant-winning Sugar Kings.


That series concluded with a seventh-game, ninth-inning Havana victory, with future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski playing second base for the Millers, who were managed by perennial hard-luck baseball man Gene Mauch. Castro was omnipresent—in the stands, in the Sugar Kings dugout, addressing the home fans: “I came here to see our team beat Minneapolis, not as premier, but as just a baseball fan. I want to see our club win the Little World Series. After the triumph of the revolution, we should also win the Little World Series.”


The next year, Castro nationalized all U.S.-owned enterprises in Cuba and then-baseball commissioner Ford Frick decreed the Sugar Kings be moved to Jersey City, the first of several stops for that franchise before reaching its current iteration as the Norfolk Tides. (An Orioles affiliate; small world.)

U.S. national teams have made a couple of Cuban appearances since then, including the 1991 Pan American Games, which were attended by both Castro and (separately) Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a U.S. Olympic Committee vice president at the time.

Steinbrenner contended then that Castro had wanted the Yankees to “come down here for an exhibition in 1977, ’78, but [baseball commissioner] Bowie Kuhn, in his infinite wisdom, wanted it to be an All-Star team instead. And it never happened.”

Now, what a visitor to Havana from Estados Unidos might be surprised to find, along with the baseball knowledge of those fanaticos at La Esquina Caliente, is a lovingly maintained 45,000-seat national stadium, Estadio Latinoamericano, smack in the middle of the city’s many paint-starved, deteriorating buildings. And, on the scoreboard, the retention of English-language baseball parlance—“ball,” “strike,” “out.” Topps baseball cards have been known to find their way around Cuba.

The island is a thoroughly natural locale to host a team from what Cubans know as the Gran Ligas. If the Rays indeed venture to Havana a few months hence, it will be—for baseball fans here and there—a touch of paradise lost and found.


Yanqui-Cuba. Si.


It’s as if President Obama had spent three weeks with me and a handful of fellow American reporters in Cuba to cover the 1991 Pan American Games. That experience, while hardly an all-access look at the inner workings of the Castro government and its many faults, offered frequent glimpses of how the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba was failing miserably.

The U.S. policy hardly was putting a dent into Fidel Castro’s grip on power, or his lifestyle, while it was bleeding the Cuban people white. The bearded old dictator, who once was considered a pitching prospect by the New York Giants before he led the 1959 Cuban revolution and commenced casting the United States as an evil empire, toured those Pan-Am Games in style, ferried around by a fleet of Mercedes.

Most citizens, meanwhile, lived in ramshackle buildings and had to stand in line for a daily ration of two loafs of bread no bigger than baseballs, as well as each family’s once-in-every-nine-days schedule to obtain a chicken.

Communications with the outside world—telephones, television—virtually were non-existent, while Fidel enjoyed the good life: A basketball court on his presidential grounds and satellite dish, provided by Ted Turner in the mid-1980s, to watch NBA games at his leisure.

From the 15th floor of the Hotel Habana Libre, reporters’ headquarters during the Pan-Am Games, Havana seemed a Caribbean paradise: Sun, palm trees and the shining Gulf of Mexico. But on the ground, tumbledown stores had 95 percent of their shelf space empty. Medical care was a top priority, one of Fidel’s claims to fame, but sanitation was years behind the times. Streets were clean—no graffiti anywhere—and free of traffic, but that mostly was because there wasn’t enough fuel to power all those 1950s Chevys or aging rattletrap Russian Ladas parked around the city.


The freshest paint on most buildings appeared to be at least 25 or 30 years old. Everywhere were banners proclaiming “Socialism or Death,” the principle of superiority Fidel claimed over decadent capitalism in the United States. In fact, though, “tourist apartheid” was in clear evidence, hardly a one-for-all and all-for-one utopia.

Visitors with hard currency, from Canada or Europe, were welcome at such resorts as luxurious Veradero Beach, two hours east of Havana, which felt like Hilton Head plopped in the middle of the Mississippi delta. Even in the midst of rundown Havana neighborhoods, where Cubans were stuck with virtually worthless pesos, tourists could patronize Ernest Hemingway’s old hangout, the Floridita Bar, a living museum of the pre-revolutionary Cuba.


At the Floridita, built in 1916, small Cuban bands entertained in air-conditioning comfort (not available in the residents’ shopping areas) among the polished red-and-black art deco and brass. What was completely out of reach for everyday Cubans—plentiful gasoline, food, shops, efficient transportation, with new Nissans and Suzukis to rent—was there for tourists.

A surprise was the complete lack of discomfort in being a U.S. citizen there. To the Cuban hoi polloi, John Kennedy was the devil, remembered for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion meant to overthrow Fidel, and later American presidents, too, were considered evil for sustaining the economic embargo. Cubans didn’t see the point of a rich nation needing to strangle 10 million people just because they happened to live 90 miles from Florida.

Yet that didn’t stop them from treating visiting Nordamericanos royally. Fellow journalist Jay Weiner and I, having hired a taxi to interview the only golf pro in all of Cuba, were invited by the cabbie—a junior high school teacher named Eduardo Azcue—to have coffee with him and his wife at his meticulously kept but well-worn home. We talked about family, not politics.

Certainly, there was paranoia among the citizens. Piddling little gifts from American reporters—left-over toothpaste tubes, shaving cream, cookies—were accepted with grateful tears by hotel maids, but only on the sly, as if it were some sort of illegal drug deal. While young kids along the Malecon, Havana’s picturesque waterfront, begged for gum, older youths made it clear that speaking to foreigners would risk arrest.

At the Bay of Pigs—Cubans refer to the 1961 battle simply by the name of the small village there, Giron (pronounced HE-rone)—a small museum commemorates the event, framed by vacation cottages, an outdoor restaurant, the turquoise sea, white-sand beach, shade from orange-flowered flamboyant trees. A lovely, peaceful place to have a nice meal on the porch in benign breezes.

In a way, the Bay of Pigs was the Cubans’ Pearl Harbor, a bloody invasion of an outside power. The U.S. lost that little war, and seemed—during that three-week adventure in 1991 by some possibly naïve reporters—to be losing the fight to do right by the Cuban people. Thus does the Obama call to restore relations with Cuba feel like a better path toward full human rights.