Beisbol: A Passionate Pasttime

February 19
Dateline: Un campo de los sueños en Cienfuegos

Baseball, the game that Americans brought to the island in the 1860s, has long been a national obsession in Cuba. We had seen youngsters playing spirited pickup games in streets, alleyways, and lots all over Havana, sometimes using taped balls or makeshift bats. We had witnessed the old-timers, with voices raised and fingers pointed, vigorously arguing the nuances of the game at the famed Esquina Caliente (the hot corner) in Havana’s Parque Central. A love of baseball even reached into the highest offices of Cuban government. Over the years, Fidel Castro has been a very visible supporter of the game. There was even a widely circulated false story that he had once received a tryout as a pitcher for the Washington Senators or the New York Yankees, depending on who was repeating the tale.

When we first met in the Miami Airport, Tom Miller and I talked about the Cuban love of baseball. He said that if he could manage it, he would try to get us tickets to a game. But so far, with our busy schedule, that opportunity had eluded us. All that changed, however, when, as our bus was leaving Cienfuegos, we came across 2 teams of what looked to be high school aged kids engaged in a spirited game. Miller convinced the bus driver to stop and most of us on the bus got off to get a closer look.

The stand-less field was lined with cheering fans. From them, I found out the game was between the best 14-16 youth team in Cienfuegos and an opponent from a poor, rural countryside town. There was a decided inequality between the two squads. The Cienfuegos team was wearing sharp green and gold uniforms. Their manager and coaches wore matching uniforms. The batting area outside their dugout was lined with shiny metal bats. Their opponents provided quite a contrast. They weren’t wearing uniforms. None of them had matching caps. Some wore cleats, but most wore sneakers.

The score mirrored the look of the two teams. Cienfuegos had established a comfortable lead and was continuing to batter their opponents’ pitchers. During yet another pitching change, I watched as a Cienfuegos coach threw his arm around the next batter and for several minutes talked patiently to him about how to handle his impending turn at the plate. Even though my Spanish is limited, I was able to understand that the young hitter was receiving some instrucción excelente.

As the game progressed, the excited fans cheered wildly, especially as an outfielder sidestepped a fallen coconut to make a running catch outside the foul lines.  One of my fellow travelers, Helen, tapped me on the shoulder. “I guess some things about sports are the same all over the world,” she said, as we watched a mother bring her son a bottle of water as he stood near the on-deck circle.

Helen was on a special mission. She had brought a bag full of yellow tennis balls with her. Whenever she would find a group of youngsters playing street ball, she would toss them a bright tennis ball to replace the ragged one they were playing with. I had accompanied her on some of her giveaways and had been warmed by the grateful smiles from the beaming recipients. I’m sure Helen and I would have stayed much longer. The weather was perfect. The fans were animated. The game was interesting.

But we saw Hilary motioning  us back toward the bus. We needed to get on our way to Bahia de Cochinos, or, as we call it in America, the Bay of Pigs. There was more than baseball in Cuba; there were famous battles sites, too. And we wanted to see at much as we  could in the short time we had left.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

The U.S. and Cuba: What Comes Next?

February 18
Dateline: A Hotel Veranda in Cienfuegos

This morning after breakfast we all gathered on the veranda of our hotel to hear Tom Miller deliver a talk entitled U.S./Cuba Relations: Hope for the Future? As Tom talked, we sipped strong Cuba coffee and were gently buffeted by the warm morning breeze.

Cuba’s ties with United States go back to the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Jefferson, ever the expansionist, coveted the island and wanted it to become part of America.

In the 1860’s, American sailors brought the new game of besibol to the island, where it immediately became overwhelmingly popular. Baseball came to represent the freedom of America, while bullfighting stood for the imperialism of Spain. Spain acted immediately and banned Cubans from playing the American game.

In 1895, led by the passionate rhetoric of Cuban’s national hero of liberation Jose Marti, the Cuban people were able to establish their independence from Spain. Marti had deep American roots, having spent more than 15 years living in New York City. His martyrdom was assured when he was killed in his first battle. “He was a much better intellectual than he was a soldier,” Miller said.

As most students of American history know, the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor (at the time, Spanish forces were believed to have blown the ship up, but today it appears the ship was sunk as the result of an on-board accident)  which occurred in 1898, led to the Spanish-American War. After the Americans won, the Spanish gave them, not the Cuban people, the flag symbolizing victory. Leonard Wood was named military governor of Cuba, where he worked to bring progressive reforms to the island. The American naval base at Guantanamo Bay was established. “This gave the Americans the right to interfere in Cuban activities whenever they wanted to,” Miller said.

In 1952, Wilencia Batista staged a coup which “pissed a lot of people off, including a young firebrand lawyer named Fidel Castro.” In 1959, Castro led a Socialist takeover of the country, seized all American assets, and formed close ties to Communist Russia.

Prompted by the heightened fears of Communism and the Cold War, the U. S. government lead by President Dwight Eisenhower, had planned an invasion of Cuba led by exiled Cubans. When John Kennedy assumed the presidency, he scaled down the proposal, but went ahead with the plan. The Bay of Pigs resulted in a quick victory for Castro and a political disaster for Kennedy. The Bay of Pigs was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and an American embargo on Cuba, which is still in effect today. Cuba became a country-non-grata to the United States.

In the 1990’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War becoming a distant memory, President Bill Clinton allowed an increase in people-to-people, professional research, and journalistic trips to Cuba. But the strict trade embargo remained in place. Because of the strong political power of anti-Castro Cuban residents of Florida, politicians feared to open relations completely.

In recent years, Cuba has stayed on the American political radar with the kidnapping of young Elian Gonzalez, the popularity of the documentary on legendary Cuban musicians The Buena Vista Social Club, and the political incarceration of The Five, a group of supposed Cuban spies captured in the United States.

Miller said political considerations continue to keep Cuba and the U.S. apart. “It’s easier to maintain a bad policy than it is to come up with a new good one,” Miller said.

So what will happen in the years to come? Miller said it is impossible to say. “Every prediction in the last 53 years about Cuba has been wrong,” he noted. “Cuba is perfectly capable of screwing up its economy on its own without any help from the United States.”

In fact, Miller noted, Cuba simply isn’t ready to open its doors to an influx of American tourists. “There aren’t sufficient facilities,” he said. “You’ve spent time here. Can you imagine Spring Break in Havana? That would be a disaster. The fact is that Cuba (after 50 years of trade embargo) is very fragile today. It would take time and planning to open the island. But there is a level of curiosity about Cuba. More people will come. They will just have to accept a certain level of vacation.”

After the lecture, Judy and I talked about the presentation. We agreed with Tom that Cuba isn’t ready for a major influx of tourism. We both believed the ongoing embargo was senseless and should be lifted. But in a selfish way, we liked the isolated Cuba we were discovering. It was different than anywhere else in the world; it hadn’t been corrupted by the quickening pace of life brought on by rapid advances in technology and corporate McDonalds-ization. We had been to China. There was a Starbucks inside the Forbidden Temple and Haagen Dazs ice cream was available for sale at the Great Wall. In an increasingly flat world, Cuba remained a unique hill. Was there a way for the island to keep the best part of its uniqueness and still garner the benefits of open relations with its giant neighbor to the north? I guess only time will tell.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Lunch with a Close Companion of Castro

Naty Revuelta with Judy and Me

February 16
Dateline: Downtown Havana

On the bus on the way to the National Museum of Fine Arts, our writer-in-residence Tom Miller teased a special guest at lunch. Of course, we all wanted to know who it would be. “I haven’t finalized the details yet. But I think you’ll be surprised and really pleased,” Miller said.

So with that bit of speculation in our minds, we began our guided tour of the museum’s massive collection. Of course, there are paintings by Cuban masters such as Wilfredo Lam and Amelia Peleaz. There are also artistic calls for La Revolucion such as El Alba (The Sunrise) which depicts faceless worker trudging unhappily to a belching factory. In the modern section, there was an interactive Punch and Judy-like display where you could create your own history with figures of Che, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, V. I. Lenin, and many others.

Outside, Miller revealed that our special guest would be Naty Revuelta, Fidel Castro’s mistress and fighting companion during the 1950s and the mother of his only-known daughter. Miller said Naty, which she liked to be called, would not speak to the group, but would allow two of us to join her at her table. Or course, I wanted to do just that, but held back to see if others would want that honor. When no one came forward, I readily volunteered and so found myself in a Havana restaurant sitting next to someone who had once known Fidel Castro perhaps as well as he can be known by anyone.

Miller had laid down some strict guidelines for what was appropriate for discussion and mandated that I couldn’t take notes nor ask anything about Castro unless Naty brought it up first. On first meeting Naty, now in her mid 80s, I quickly discovered that I was in the presence of a lady who exudes a sense of specialness in speech, dress, and manner. She is, as I told Miller later, a woman both “classy and classic.”

Born into a wealthy Cuban family, Naty said she had an interesting raising. “I had a grandfather who was English and was very proper and I had a grandfather who was Spanish and was very emotional. I learned about both worlds,” she said.

Naty spent four years at a boarding school in Philadelphia, then two years in college in DC. We talked briefly about both those places: what they were like then and what they are like now.

“You know, I was 22 years old when I met Fidel,” Naty interjected. “It was an interesting time.” I waited for more, but she shifted into a narrative about the daughter she shared with Castro.

The daughter had fled to the United States from the island in 1960. It would be 24 years before UNESCO set up a meeting allowing Naty to see her in America. She showed me a picture of that meeting she always carries with her.

She then shifted back to earlier Cuban years. “Batista was not good for the people,” Naty said. “I was not a party member, but I was working for the party when I met Fidel. I am 6 months older than him.”

Although we then chatted about other matters, I knew from previous reading her current stand on the Cuban leader. She doesn’t say outright that Castro has failed to follow through on promises of democracy. Instead, she names his successes and commends his bravery in facing both Cuban and U.S. opposition. Castro, she says, will be remembered as ” a man who tried very hard. Some love him more, some love him less.”

Miller and my fellow traveler Dennis excused themselves from the table and I found myself alone with Naty. Suddenly, she began choking on a piece of prosciutto. A vision flashed before my eyes. I would try to save the choking Naty and be unsuccessful. Castro would be outraged. I would find myself in a Cuban prison. The New York Times lead article would be headlined, “Castro Claims American Agent Kills Mistress; Calls for Death by Firing Squad.” However, a sip of wine cured Naty of her choking and we resumed our talking until Miller returned, signaling the end of lunch.

I thanked Naty for her conversation and asked if she would pose for a picture with Judy and me. Ever gracious, she complied. “Did my husband talk too much?” Judy asked. “No he was the a perfect lunch companion,” Naty replied.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order 

Thank You, My Good Frenemies

February 15
Dateline: Callejon de Hamel y Jaminitas

As we prepared to get off the bus and stroll the art district of the Callejon de Hamel, our Cuban guide Luis issued his version of that traveler’s warning heard round the world:: “Open your eyes really well, but keep your purses and wallets really tight. It is safe, but I have to warn you about this.”

Luis’ warning made me pause for reflection. Since arriving in Havana, I had never once felt unsafe or even uncomfortable. We had walked big streets and back streets. We had walked in guided groups and Judy and I had explored on our own. We had encountered some children asking for money, but all the adults requesting money had offered something in return – a quick sketch, a cigar, a roll of nuts. We had encountered some military presence at government sites, but had seen few police. Of course, as there would be in any city, there is crime in Havana. But punishment is swift and it is severe. Apparently, that serves as a deterrent, at least as far as outside visitors are concerned.

At the beginning of Hamel street, we met our local guide, Elias, who gave new meaning to the term constant patter. He looked like a cross between the actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Black. Dressed in jeans and a vintage biker T-shirt and with a green and brown band tied around his head, Elias greeted us. “I welcome my wonderful enemies from the United States. You are my good frenemies,’ Elias said, his face breaking into the widest of grins.

For the next hour, Elias regaled us with tales of art and mysticism as we walked past the colorful murals and crowded art stalls. “These murals are from local artist Salvador Gonzalez. He is a crazy guy, but he is a most famous artist,” Elias said.

Elias said most of the people in this section of Havana believed in the power of Orishas, a religious tradition originating in Africa and somewhat related to the Cuban practice of Santeria in which spirits are invoked. “It is a very practical religion,” Elias said, twirling an unlit cigar through his fingers. “It gives you hope of solving your problems in your life, not in death. It says you should be in communication with natural forces by using natural forces.”

“You were born with your Orisha; you don’t choose your Orisha. You use it to fulfill your proper destiny,” he added. “Some people look at this as witchcraft. But it is not witchcraft; it is a good religion. Cuba is closed-minded about many things, but it is open-minded when it comes to religion.”

As others broke from the group to check out the art for sale, Elias and I kept talking. Or rather I kept asking questions and Elias kept answering them. “I can see you are a seeker,” Elias said, beckoning me to come with him into a stall containing books, many of them on Cuba and religion. “I have read many of these,” he said. “I will recommend some to you and you can read them when you get home.”

After we returned to the street, Elias said, “You are now one of my special frenemies. We will seal our new friendship with this.” Reaching into his pocket, he produced a hand-rolled cigar, which he then handed me. “There are many good cigars in Cuba, but this is not one of them,” he said. “But you are now my friend and I want you to have it.”

Soon, the rest of our group gathered and it was time to take in the African-influenced drum and rhumba dance street show. “Thank you, my good frenemies. We have now all traded with the enemy” Elias said, riffing on our National Geographic guide Tom Miller’s book title as his way of leaving us.”

Following our Hamel visit, we headed to lunch on the 33rd floor of a downtown Cuban hotel. The food was good (I was really begining to disbelieve this story that you couldn’t find good food in Cuba) but the views of Havana were magnificent. The entire dining room was lined with windows which made for some pretty spectacular photos for the photo buffs among us.

After lunch we traveled to the Jaimanitas district on the outskirts of Havana and the workshop of renowned ceramic artist Jose Fuster, who has been called the Picasso of the Caribbean. It can be truly said that Fuster has covered a lot of ground with his art.  Roofs, walls, doorways and benches, stretching for blocks around the epicenter of his studio enclave, are adorned with his brightly colored sculptures and mosaics : mermaids, fish, palm trees, roosters and Santería saints, as well as quotations from Alejo Carpentier, Onelio Jorge Cardoso, and Ernest Hemingway. More than 80 neighbors have allowed Fuster to use their homes as his canvas.

On the way back to the Melia Cohiba, we were given a choice. Tonight, we could go to Havana’s most spectacular nightclub, the Tropicana, which is the one symbol of pre-revolutionary Cuba that was not allowed to die. First opened on New Year’s Eve 1939  (exactly 20 years before the successful conclusion of the Communist Revolution),  the Tropicana is still world-famous for its flamboyant cabaret routines highlighted by showgirls’ extravagant costumes that hide very little. Having been to Las Vegas (which owes a great debt to pre-revolutionary Cuba) many times, we opted for dinner on our own and more Havana street exploring.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

A Night of Love Under a Havana Moon

February 14:
Dateline: Old Havana

Arriving back at the Melia Cohiba, we had about 2 hours of free time before we were to leave for dinner in old town Havana. Judy and I decided to explore the neighborhood near our hotel, In addition to sightseeing, we were on a mission – my camera battery had decided to die while we were at Las Terrazas and so I needed a replacement. In most countries, no problem. In Cuba, with 50 years of an American embargo, big problem.

Striking out in the gift shop of our own hotel, we decided to try the Riviera Hotel next door. No luck on the battery (we would never find one in our entire Cuba stay), but I did use my Spanglish to make our 1st art purchase, an intricate nautical wood carving of swimming fish.

Next we headed out to explore the back streets. We saw children, many in uniform, returning home from school. The younger ones were escorted by their parents. The older ones chatted. Not a cell phone or MP3 player in sight. We did however come across a trio of teenagers singing a Cuban pop song loudly in Spanish.

We ducked into a corner grocery store. The shelves weren’t bare, but they definitely weren’t well stocked. We were surprised to see a couple of American brand names on the canned goods, but learned later that they had been rerouted from other countries that Cuba has trade relations with.

We saw several destroyed houses, visual proof that more than 3 Havana structures a day are crumbling away. In the driveways and the streets, one of the main late afternoon activities appeared to be careful car washing. We stopped and perused some of the merchandise at the on-the-porch home stores that the Cuban government now permits.

We arrived back at the hotel just in time to board the bus for dinner. On the way there, we drove for a while next to the Malecon which was packed with thousands of people, most of them couples, out to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Dinner was scheduled at El Patio, an outdoor restaurant in Cathedral Square. The ancient square. The historic Cathedral. A band for dancing. The Cuban love of passion and romance. The Havana moon. It made for a once-in-a-life-time Valentine’s Day dinner.

And speaking of dancing, while most of our party headed back to the Melia Cohiba after dining, Judy and I joined 1 other couple for a 2nd late night of Cuban salsa instruction at Jennifer’s home. Jennifer and her mother, Paula, practice Santeria, a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the New World and Cuba by enslaved West Africans sent to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native American traditions. I had read about the misunderstood religion and wanted to take a picture of the decorated altar in Paula’s living room. She said I could, but since I would capturing some of the spirit of the shrine, I would have to leave something personal behind. So now there is a Santeria altar in Havana that includes my pen.

As for my dance movements, I thought I had vastly improved. And I believed Jennifer confirmed that when she said “I’ve never seen such dancing as yours.” Our Cuban guide Luis had joined us for the evening. After watching me engage in a particular  difficult routine (you had to salsa while moving around in a small square), Luis shook his head. “Dave, my friend, you give all us men all over the world a bad reputation for dancing. You should not be doing this.” But I think Luis was just jealous of my unique moves. In my mind, I was already well on my way to becoming the Cuban King of Salsa.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order