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.