• Nochebuena; La Habana

    Nochebuena; La Habana

    Christmas Eve; Havana


    In another time, it would not be surprising to read a headline like this in an edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. Although he was an authoritarian, Fidel Castro wanted to be seen as benevolent to his people, the giver of all things. But Fidel died in 2016.

    It is Christmas Eve 2018, and despite the fact that another large bearded man reputedly travels the globe this night giving toys to children, I assume that Santa is still on the no-fly list here in Cuba. So imagine my surprise as I stand on a corner in Habana Vieja and, “what to my wondering eyes did appear, but”...uh...two bicitaxis tricked-out in the regalia of Spain's Fútbol Club Barcelona and propelled by elf-shirt-clad riders.

    The bicis skid to a stop, Papá Noel leaps out, hands soccer balls to two children that happen to be nearby, jumps back in next to an extraordinarily beautiful Señorita Claus, and down the street they fly. I have just enough time to make a couple of exposures before they are a block away. From personal experience I surmise that this drive-by gifting is done of necessity so that the bicis, elves, Santa and his Señorita are not overrun by other kids who are descending on the scene.

    This Cuban riff on Clement Clarke Moore's classic poem illustrates how much the country is changing. Fidel made Santa persona non grata in 1959, more or less accusing him of being an illegal immigrant from the United States. His reindeer were unwelcome as well. Decorations had to portray traditional Cuban scenes, and “Yankee” Christmas trees were forbidden in lieu of Cuban palms. Castro's Grinch-like decree lasted until just before Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998.

    When I first began traveling here I noticed very muted acknowledgments of the holidays, mostly limited to small, artificial trees in a corner of people's houses. But as with other things that were once banned, each year the celebrations become more open and festive. Strings of Christmas lights adorn balcony railings. Many of the people whose job is to stand on the street to entice customers into restaurants do so while wearing Santa hats, and the restaurants are decorated in ways that Fidel would not have approved of in 1959. The ubiquitous street bands incorporate a rendition of “Feliz Navidad” into their set lists.

    I enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve gathering for drinks and snacks with some Cuban friends, then have a great dinner at my favorite restaurant. Later I return to my apartment and sit on the rooftop with a glass of rum, listening to the revelry below.

    Christmas Day comes to life a little more lethargically than do most mornings here. The roosters crow more softly than usual. The bakery across the street is open for business but the flow of customers is a little slower today than on others. The holiday seems to have settled back into just another day here in Cuba, perhaps a metaphor for the ebb and flow of change here.

    As I finish writing this story I learn than the US government is changing the conditions of visas for Cubans wishing to visit the US, ostensibly to mirror Cuban visas for US citizens. But an unintended consequence is to make travel more difficult and expensive for the nascent Cuban entrepreneurs who regularly travel to the US to buy many of the supplies they need for their paladares and casas particulares. I think that a more thoughtful and consistent approach to relations between our countries might ferment democracy here, and is the best gift we could give the Cuban people.


    Evening of Saint Lazarus

    I witness a powerful illustration of the syncretization of the Yoruba and Catholic religions at the Pilgrimage of San Lazaro. On the evening of December 17 of every year people who themselves, or who have family that are suffering from various physical or mental afflictions, congregate in the town of Santiago de Las Vegas. Here they fulfill promises that they have made to San Lazaro in hopes that the ailments will be cured.

    The pilgrimage is named after Lazarus, the poor man in the parable recounted in Luke 16:19-31 of the Bible, who begged for food from “a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury.” The beggar was covered in sores that were licked by dogs who came by, and so christianity venerates Lazarus as the patron saint of lepers. In the Yoruba religion, the orisha Babalú-Aye is associated with the healing of diseases such as smallpox and leprosy; he is portrayed wearing burlap clothing with purple adornments, and is accompanied by two dogs. The two are syncretized, and bear the Spanish name San Lazaro.

    Unlike Felipe, a pilgrim I meet in downtown Havana who plans to walk the entire way, I take a cab to the village on the outskirts of the city. Here begins the final leg of the pilgrimage to a church on the grounds of Santuario Nacional de San Lazaro, a former sanctuary for people suffering from leprosy. The illness is rare in Cuba today, so the hospital treats victims of other skin diseases as well. The patients stand behind a fence surrounding the hospital, quietly watching me, an artist named Jose who is my guide tonight, and thousands of other people who have come here to participate in the pilgrimage.

    Some, like me, are here to simply experience the event. For others it seems to be a reason to drink rum, play loud music, and party, much like Carnaval. Residents are meeting their more basic need to earn a living by selling statues of San Lazaro, other Santería objects, souvenirs, and food and drink to the attendees. Others have come to support the pilgrims, who are dressed in the rough sack cloth representing the clothing of Lazarus, trimmed in finer purple fabric like that of the rich man of the parable. Many of the pilgrims are fulfilling their promise to San Lazaro by completing the last few kilometers to the church on their hands and knees, some dragging heavy weights behind them, while others roll themselves over and over down the street. A few wish to endure even more suffering to prove themselves worthy; we stop next to one man lying prostrate in the road where Jose, a devout practitioner of Santería, drips hot wax from his candle onto the back of the man.

    After reaching the church into which hundreds of people have crowded, I see a man sitting on the floor surrounded by candles, his ankle horribly disfigured by a large, deep skin ulcer. I can only bear the heat and the tightly-packed throng for a few minutes before I need to go outside. There, others sit in quiet contemplation in front of candles, some performing Santería rituals.

    Later, I think about my experience this night and realize how fortunate I am. I have good health, a comfortable life, a wonderful family and friends, the ability to travel and experience a wider world, and the freedom to do and think as I like in my country. The pilgrims do not enjoy such luxuries. Instead, their lives are consumed by some kind of overwhelming problem that has compelled them to make their promises to San Lazaro. I feel undeserving, but blessed just the same.


    In “Havana Black,” Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura writes of the fanatical devotion of police lieutenant Mario Conde and his friend Skinny Carlos to their beloved Havana Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban professional baseball. I experience the roller coaster emotions of Padura's characters in the grandstands of Estadio Latinoamerica one evening, where I am blessed once again with the good juju of Cuba and learn why the Spanish word for “fan,” fanático, is so appropriate.

    The night is clear and warm; exactly the conditions under which baseball should be played. The home team and their opponent from Sancti Spiritus are having winning seasons and I am told that this will be a good game. It turns out to be a more exciting contest than any writer could invent, as thrilling as watching the injured Kirk Gibson hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning during the 1988 World Series.

    After paying a cuban peso apiece (4 cents US) to enter the stadium, three friends and I find the special section behind home plate that our cabbie tells us is reserved for extranjeros (foreigners). Realizing that the net in front of us will interfere with our photography, we set our sights on another group of seats along the first base line but are stopped by a guard who tells us the section is reserved for journalists. Our cameras and my claim to be writing a book about Cuba either fails in translation or persuasion, and we are refused entry.

    We next find some empty, roped-off seats behind the third base dugout. An ancient guardian tells us these seats are reserved for an Industriales fan club, but we are then approached by another man who says that for 10CUC we can sit in the section with him and his friends. I agree and reach for my wallet, but he quickly waves me off and ushers us to some rickety wooden seats with a premium view of the field. A bit later he asks me to follow him under the grandstands and into a dark, deserted corner that would make me nervous in any other country. But I understand that he is simply collecting his baksheesh away from the eyes of the many police officers who are attending the game, his version of resolver. We watch from our seats and are treated as friends; cursing the umpires and cheering “our” team as enthusiastically as our hosts.

    The game does not begin well for the home team. By the bottom of the fourth inning they are down by a score of 0-6 and have seemingly gone through all of the pitchers on their staff; I wonder if there is a mercy rule in Cuban baseball. Then inning by inning they score a run or two, closing the gap against the Sancti Spiritus team. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Industriales have clawed their way back to a 6-6 tie. The visiting pitcher hits a batter to load the bases and spark a stare-down between the two, but before trotting off to first base the batter shakes hands with the pitcher in a remarkable display of sportsmanship in this very competitive game. The next batter hits a soft single into shallow right field to score the winning run, causing the entire Industriales team to storm out of the dugout in a celebration worthy of a World Series game 7.

    Despite the excitement on the field, I am equally entertained by the fans. After every important play, and each time the umpires make one of several bad calls against the Industriales, loud, heated debates ensue, each point punctuated by animated gestures, and I wonder what would happen if these people were not actually on the same side. Life in Cuba is complicated, but for these fans, just as it is for Lt. Condi and Skinny Carlos, baseball is an escape, a brief respite from politics, the economy, and the difficulties of living here.


    Pledge Of Allegiance

    I think that I most enjoy Cuba early in the day, when for a few moments before the sun rises above the horizon Havana is a pastel city. From the roof of my casa I can see soft, warm light reflected from the pockmarked coral walls of the main cathedral, making it look a bit like a birthday cake left too long in the sun. Soon the neighborhood will be alive with uniformed children on their way to school; older kids with groups of their peers, younger ones accompanied by a parent, all seemingly looking forward to a day of learning. The commitment to education exemplified by these students might be the most important and enduring legacy of the Cuban Revolution, and is one of the most interesting stories that I have learned about this fascinating place.

    Before 1959, access to education was very unequal here. Affluent Cubans sent their children to private schools at home and abroad, while children of families of lesser means attended a public school system ill equipped to provide a good education. Schools did not exist in many rural areas, so children living outside of cities often could not attend at all. As a result, many Cubans could not read or write, especially in the countryside where the literacy rate was about 68%. In addition, the disparity in educational opportunities between rich and poor, urban and rural, was symbolic of the class divisions that marked the first half of the twentieth century in Cuba, something that Fidel Castro was determined to eradicate. So with the revolution less than two years old, Castro declared in a speech before the United Nations that 1961 would be the “Year of Education” in his country. He went on to say, “in the next year, our people plan to wage a great battle against illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every last illiterate person to read and write.”

    The plan to enact this lofty goal became known as the Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba, the Cuban Literacy Campaign. It would depend heavily upon the participation of citizens, andwas built on two basic socialistic ideas: “if illiterates are to be found among the people, so also are those who can teach literacy,” and “those who know more must teach those who know less.” Following these principles, more than 300,000 literacy workers called alfabetizadores were trained and equipped. Adult volunteers worked primarily in cities, and more remarkably, 100,000 students ranging in age from 10 to 19 years old were sent out into the countryside, where they worked in the fields alongside the campesinos by day, and taught them to read and write at night by the light of a special lantern that would become the symbol of the program. By working with their adult “students” in the fields, a bond of trust was established, as well as a sense of solidarity between learners and teachers.

    Although the goal of 100% literacy within one year was not achieved, the literacy rate throughout Cuba climbed steadily to eventually reach today's level of 99.8%, one of the best in the world. After the campaign ended, the government continued to make education a priority, and a right, of all Cubans. Schools were constructed in rural areas throughout the country to give every child access. Others are found tucked into corners of old buildings, in the plazas popular with tourists, and along busy streets in the built-up urban areas such as Havana.

    One morning I notice a commotion down the street from my casa and see students gathering in front of Simon Rodriguez Primary School. One is responsible for raising the flag to mark the start of the school day while his schoolmates begin singing the country's anthem. As I watch and listen I am reminded of a simpler time in my country, when at the beginning of each day we would stand, place our hands over our hearts, and recite our pledge of allegiance.


    One of my favorite places to listen to music in Cuba bears the ironic name of Cafe Paris. It sits at the intersection of two important streets in Habana Vieja, San Ignacio and Obispo, that are closed to vehicular traffic but crowded with tourists. The proprietors have taken advantage of this happy accident to fill the cobblestone street in front of the cafe with tables and chairs. On pleasant evenings, which is to say most evenings in Havana, this patio is filled with patrons whose money enables the cafe to hire top quality ensembles to entertain them.

    But one evening I find myself being entertained by two elderly women at another table, each with one of the quintessential tourist drinks, a mojito and a daiquiri. The woman drinking the daiquiri is employing a fascinating method of consuming her beverage: keeping her hands in her lap, she bends forward at the waist and aims her mouth at the straw, takes a small sip, then straightens back up. Seconds later she repeats this process, over and over, reminding me of one of those drinking bird toys. Neither woman smiles or seems to be particularly enjoying herself. Daiquiri-sipper's bows to her straw are not in time to the music, causing me to wonder if they even hear it. In any case, I decide they at least don't “get” the music, and maybe not the place.

    Whether lost on these women or not, a great band plays a mixture of salsa music, Buena Vista Social Club hits, and of course, their version of “Guantanamera.” The same cast of Cubans that I see here every night dances at the edge of the seating area, one of whom is a woman with what seems to be the same large cigar clenched in her teeth. With even the slightest encouragement, they descend upon the tables to pose for selfies with the tourists and ask for money before being chased out by the waiters.

    In Viñales I watch a group of children taking salsa lessons and wonder why, since it seems that Cubans are born knowing how to move to the music; it is as natural to them as walking. Salsa music is built around a particular rhythm, called a clave, or key, with a wooden instrument of the same name often heard tapping out this rhythm. Jorge Gomez of the band Moncada says that one one must have the clave inside them, and that when Cuban women walk, it is more like they are dancing. I observe this phenomenon carefully and can confirm that Jorge is correct: Cuban women seem to make an extra little forward movement of their hips with each step they take, giving them a dancing kind of walk. They feel the music, even when they do not hear it.

    Salsa is an escape, however temporary, from the hard reality of life in Cuba. To watch Cubans play or dance is to see them free of the bonds of oppression under which they have lived for five hundred years. It is also a way to make a living. The best bands play in places like Cafe Paris, while those less talented, or perhaps those still earning their “chops,” play on street corners. Some use homemade instruments; all regularly pass a small basket for donations or to sell their latest hit CD. Teaching salsa is a booming business as well. Five American friends and I take a class one day, each of us paying our personal instructor 10CUC per hour, good money here. After two hours, we at least understand the basic steps of salsa dance: “one two three, five six seven,” still echoing in our minds hours later.

    Late in the evening, I lie in the darkness of my little room on the roof of a casa particular. The sun has long set, and the tropical day is slowly cooling. Down the street at Cafe Paris the salsa band plays, percussion instruments and horn clearly audible, the notes of a tres sneaking through from time to time. With windows open on two sides, my room becomes a large speaker, the music a perfect soundtrack to my time here in Cuba.


    The word malecón is Spanish, meaning a breakwater or esplanade. Many Latin American cities such as Lima, Peru, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico have them. But I suspect that when most people hear the word, especially when it is preceded by a definite article and expressed as a proper noun, they think of the one found in Havana, Cuba.

    Here,“The Malecón” is the name given to the multi-lane road, walkway, and thick concrete seawall that parallel each other beginning in Havana Bay and extending about five miles along the city's waterfront to the mouth of the Almendares River. The United States began building it in 1901 during our occupation of the country, and it was finished by Cuba after it became an independent nation.

    It is meant to protect the city from the Florida Straits, and on calm days it does. But when a hurricane visits the island, or a strong storm crosses the Gulf of Mexico from Texas as one did recently, the waves crash over the seawall, making the otherwise pleasant place dangerous to pedestrians and drivers, and it is closed by the police. I walk to the end of an intersecting street where I am waved away by a motorcycle officer. When I ask if I can stand in Antonio Maceo park across the street to take pictures, he literally draws a line on the ground with his boot, behind which he tells me to stay.

    Although the original purpose of the Malecón was to keep land and water in their respective places, over the years its importance to the commerce of the city has grown. It is an efficient way to travel between Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and on into the Vedado neighborhood. Cruise ships dock in the bay where it begins, and taxistas in their pink Cadillacs compete for tourists here. Vendors selling tropical drinks and TuKola, the island-produced version of Coca Cola, do a brisk business. Further on in a poorly-lit section, exotically beautiful young women and men offer less reputable services to foreigners who, by chance or design, venture here after dark.

    But by day, the seawall is a place to catch fish. Along its length I see young boys and old men casting lines into the water, some using expensive-looking rods and reels while others simply throw baited hooks by hand, anchoring the free end of their lines with a convenient piece of broken concrete. Some of these pescadores (fishermen) make a living this way. I find one being supervised by his wife as he sorts a nice catch of pargo rojo, the local name for red snapper, likely destined for a local restaurant. After considering what a recent deluge had washed down the storm sewers and into the bay where some of these are caught, I decide against fish for tonight's dinner. But many feed their families this way, and are unable to be as particular as me.

    One afternoon I hear the incessant honking of a car horn and turn to find a girl dressed in a fine gown, sitting atop the rear seat of a classic American convertible. She is celebrating her quinceañera, an important milestone marking the fifteenth birthday of a latina. This is one of the few times that I see Cubans riding in a car purely for pleasure. The adjoining walkway and seawall is a place where Habaneros can go to just relax and enjoy themselves. Entire families from grandparents to small children walk together. Groups of teenaged Cubanos laugh and mug for selfies with their newly-acquired smartphones. Lovers lean into one another atop the seawall and gaze out into the gulf stream. To these people, I think that providing a brief respite from the challenges of living in Cuba is the most vital function of the Malecón.


    El Paseo del Prado, which translates into something like “Meadow Promenade,” is one of the most beautiful places in Havana. The boulevard was built almost 250 years ago in an undeveloped area just outside of the original city wall, perhaps inspiring its name. Or, since Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, it may have been named after the famous street in Madrid. In any case, the Prado became the societal epicenter of the colonial city: mansions and important commercial buildings were constructed along its length, and it became fashionable for the wealthy and elite to stroll down its sidewalks or ride in their carriages each afternoon. After Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902 it was renamed Paseo del Marti in honor of the country's most revered figure, but it is still frequently called by its earlier name, or simply as El Prado.

    I decide to take my own stroll on the Prado one hot afternoon. Crossing busy Calle Neptuno that marks its upper end, I pass the first of several bronze lions that guard the wide promenade. Rows of stately trees line each side, their full, low-hanging branches serving both as a shield from the tropical sun overhead and the noise and fumes from the car-choked streets on either side. This sanctuary of sorts is occupied by artists hoping to sell their work to the tourists who venture away from nearby Parque Central, their stands filled with paintings of Che, old American cars, street scenes of La Bodaguita del Medio where Hemingway drank one afternoon, and the occasional abstract or interpretive piece. I stop to watch a Chinese artist and her small child, she looking out for prospective customers while he sits on a stool with pencil and sketch pad, learning his mother's art.

    As I walk down the gentle slope and begin to taste the salt air coming up from the Malecón I leave the tourists behind and sense more of a Cuban vibe. A jinatera working the day shift calls softly from a marble bench on one side, hoping to “entertain” me for a little while; I nod in her direction, smile, and politely decline the offer. Further along, two girls have decided that another of the lions is a good place to sit, so I ask them to pose for a picture.

    Then I encounter these men. Susceptible to the narrow range of temperatures in which Cubans feel comfortable, they wear long sleeves, sweatshirts and jackets, even though I am warm in a T shirt. They have gathered at what I suspect is “their” bench, at what is probably an appointed hour, to discuss politics, baseball, the problems in their country, the girls walking by, and maybe the jinatera on the opposite side. The uniquely Cuban blend of a tres, abundant percussion instruments, and intertwining vocal harmonies emanating from a boombox accompanies their discussion, along with two bottles of the less expensive vintage of Havana Club rum affordable by ordinary Cubans and a can of Kermato tomato juice.

    I have noticed this decidedly un-tropical cocktail being consumed by other Cubans, and so it becomes the beginning of a conversation with them. Being Cubans, which means being generous to a fault, they quickly offer me a glass, which I just as quickly accept. I ask if I can photograph them, and being Cubans they immediately adopt poses: one crossing his arms and staring down his nose at me, another using his ubiquitous cigar as a prop, and the third giving me a thumbs up, which I take as a sign of approval for their new American friend.


    The Look

    Photographers are known to suffer from an affliction called GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. In order to make better photographs, we think we must have the latest, greatest, fastest, smartest, highest-pixel count, sleekest, lightest DSLR with which the evil marketing people at Nikon and Canon are currently tempting us. Old-school film photographers like me are susceptible to a regressive form of GAS. We covet older, bigger, antiquated cameras that others consider obsolete. This is just the first step down a dark path. After all, the “best” camera in the world is useless without an assortment of lenses. One needs a tripod on which to perch this magnificent setup, and there is the never-ending list of accessories, not to mention bags and cases to store it all. Once acquired, gear is never disposed of even when it has been replaced by something “better,” unless money is needed for the next fix.

    But there are things more important than equipment that are needed to make good photographs. They are intrinsic qualities that cannot be ordered from B&H Photo or bid on at eBay, but must be discovered and developed and refined by the photographer. For me, an important quality is curiosity. When I think about photographs I have made that most satisfy me, I realize that wondering helped me find them. What is around the next bend in the trail or on the other side of that fence? How can I isolate my subject from its surroundings, simplify the composition? How would this look at night, or in fog? What if I break that rule?

    It is Saturday morning and Habana Vieja is slowly waking up. Cubans are walking from the local panadería carrying loaves of aromatic, freshly baked bread for breakfast. The tourists have finished their breakfasts in the hotel dining rooms and are beginning to prowl the shops in search of that perfect souvenir of their visit to Cuba. I wander down a street with my camera at the ready and my mind open to the possibilities. The sound of voices coming from the open windows of a building piques my curiosity, so I walk up to the door where I am immediately noticed, invited in, and learn that a class on hair styling is in progress. In one area a man demonstrates on one of the students while the others pay close attention. His mother, who by her demeanor is clearly in charge, gives me a tour and then goes back to braiding the hair of an attractive young woman. La jefa (the boss lady) grants my request to photograph her at work; the younger woman apparently has no say in the matter but seems to have decided that she can at least give me a little attitude. Folding her arms, she sits up a little straighter and stares back into my lens with the same unblinking intensity that it does her. Her gaze conveys that she knows she is pretty, and probably also knows that is the reason I want to make this particular photograph.

    I have never quite gotten accustomed to the directness of Cuban women. Generalizations are dangerous, I know, but it seems that unlike many women in other places who avoid eye contact with men they do not know, Cubanas often look first. And far from being a demure glance, the looks are candid, obvious, inviting, and often accompanied with a smile or greeting. Sometimes the women are jinateras offering a certain kind of “entertainment” to foreign men; others are husband-shopping, or maybe want someone to buy them a nice dinner. But mostly, I think, they are just being Cuban women: confident in their appeal, not ashamed of their appearance, appreciative of the looks that they get. At times I have the impression that not looking back gives offense here. Far be it from me to do that.



    Every country seems to have its own sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are woven into its fabric, that say, “you are in this particular place.” I begin experiencing uniquely-Cuban sights as soon as I step outside the arrivals terminal at Jose Marti Airport: the incredible number and variety of classic American cars waiting to transport people into Havana. Instead of commercial advertisements, billboards featuring various revolutionary proclamations and visages of Fidel Castro. Schoolchildren wearing uniform white shirts and colored pants or skirts indicating their grade levels. The iconic image of Che Guevara on every conceivable surface. Cigars. And dominoes.

    I recall playing dominoes as a child, but for most of my life the word has meant a place to buy takeout pizza. In Spanish the singular noun dominó is used; I learn from Professor Elda Stanco Downey at Roanoke Spanish  that it is a play on the verb dominar, to dominate. To Cubans dominó is the equivalent of a video game addiction. It is part of their culture and I see it being played everywhere: on a hot, sunny day on the Paseo del Prado, after dark in a dimly-lit street in Habana Vieja, during a raucous wedding party, outside a store in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, and here, in the shade of a tropical tree.

    It is played by adults in this country – usually men – sometimes for hours on end and frequently accompanied by cigars and cheap rum. Working in two-person teams, players lay tiles on the table by matching them to one with an equal number of spots that has already been played, “knocking” on the table to pass if unable to make a play. In some games the first team to use all of their tiles wins, in others a score of the value of tiles played is kept to determine the winning team. At first glance it may seem to be a quiet, passive game, and showing emotion during the game is discouraged in some quarters, since by words or actions a player could show his hand to his partner or to the opposing team. But as are most things in Cuba, here it is done with intensity, passion, and enthusiasm.

    I find a game underway one placid, Saturday afternoon on a residential street just off the busy Avenida de la Independencia. As I approach, the players notice me and my camera and a conversation begins in the usual way:

    CUBAN: De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)

    ME: Los Estados Unidos. (The United States.)

    CUBAN: ¡Me encanta los Estados Unidos! (I love the United States, accompanied by the usual peace or victory sign, I have never been able to figure out which sentiment is being expressed.)

    ME: Bueno, me encanta tu país también. (Well, I love your country also.)

    From there the conversation segues into their cousins who live in Miami. I am granted permission to photograph their game, and chat amiably with three of the players. But the fourth will have nothing to do with me. I do not sense hostility from him, rather that he is simply serious about the game and does not want to be distracted. Head down and cigar firmly clenched in his teeth, he grumbles to his compadres, likely admonishing them in Spanish too rapid for me to understand to stop talking and play. Perhaps to signal his frustration, he passes by rapping the flimsy table so vigorously that the tiles become momentarily airborne. A quiet and passive game indeed!


    The Baseball Game

    Baseball might be the first and most enduring of many bonds that have formed between the United States and Cuba. Born in the US in the middle of the 19th Century, the sport gained popularity during the rest of the century to become our “national pastime.” Cuban students returning from studying in the US, along with American sailors on shore leave in Cuba introduced baseball there. Under Spanish rule at the time, Cubans were expected to be fans of Spain's national sport, bullfighting. But as a subtle act of protest against their colonial masters, Cubans began to favor baseball over bullfighting. The Spanish attempted to ban the sport in Cuba, which only served to increase its popularity. Bullfighting was seen as a metaphor for the Spanish oppression from which Cubans longed to escape, while baseball represented the American values of freedom and democracy to which they aspired.

    During the early 20th century when baseball was still racially segregated in the US, black, white, and mixed-race athletes played as equals on Cuban teams. According to an article in Atlantic Magazine, “many of the greatest interracial games of the era took place in Havana, rather than in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park...” In 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training in Havana to help Jackie Robinson prepare for the upcoming season and break the color barrier in American baseball.

    Perhaps because of its association with freedom from Spanish rule, baseball remained extremely popular in Cuba even as it was being eclipsed by football and other sports in the United States. In addition, Fidel Castro loved the game and was an aspiring, if ultimately unsuccessful, pitcher. Capitalizing on the nationalistic pride in the game, he banned professional baseball in the early days of the Revolution, instituting a league of amateur teams who, as he said, “play for the love of people, not money.” Accordingly, they were paid salaries only slightly higher than the average “wage” of state jobs in Cuba. Poorly paid or not, these players are some of the best in the world: Cuba frequently wins international tournaments, many players who have defected from Cuba are stars in Major League Baseball in the US, and the Cuban National Team has held its own in games against MLB teams.

    Baseball games are being shown on practically every TV set in Havana, and I learn that the Cuban version of the World Series is currently underway. I decide to attend a game, so I walk to Estadio Latinoamerica, home of the beloved Industriales. A security guard tells me there is no game today, but there will be one tomorrow. At least I think that is what he says; when I return the next day I discover that there is no game then either. Maybe its that mañana thing: sometimes the word means tomorrow, other times some unspecified point in the future.

    Several days later I am walking down the Malecón when I notice some kids playing a pick-up game on a tiny patch of grass bounded by busy thoroughfares. First base is a concrete cover on the sidewalk; other bases are similarly improvised. Balls often roll across the street toward the Spanish embassy or fly dangerously close to cars approaching the tunnel to the other side of the bay. Ill-equipped, the teams trade gloves as each takes its turn in the field. They ignore the Yuma with the camera and play with the same emotion and excitement that I remember from my Little League days, although lack of talent doomed my baseball “career” the same way it did Fidel's. But it is El Comandante's words, not his playing ability, that inspire these kids: they play for love, not money.