Hey do the wave in Cuba.
That is just one of the many things visitors will discover during the Pan American Games, Aug. 2-18. Cuba is at once defiant and friendly, somber and vibrant. Even though every third sign reads SOCIALISMO O MUERTE, Cubans still embrace many things American: movies (the works of Francis Ford Coppola), cars (the De Sotos, etc., left over from pre-Revolution days) and the Wave.
And yet, as the fans at a recent World Volleyball League match between the Netherlands and Cuba demonstrated, Cubans can turn such hand-me-downs into their own creations. Their ola is more up-tempo than ours, giddier. Even the forbidding mural of Che Guevara that dominates the Ciudad Deportiva (Che Stadium?) seemed to rise with the Wave.
That's not all the fans in Cuba do. At one point in the match, after Joel Despaigne, one of the best players in the world, spiked a ball through the Dutch defense to give Cuba a decisive lead, one section of the arena began counting the Netherlands out—in English, "one, two, three..."—in the manner of a boxing referee. It's a neat little trick, and it made an American in Havana wonder, What else have we been missing all these years?
Cubans lack for certain things—foodstuffs, fuel, foreign friends—but pride is not one of them. While the Pan Am Games may seem a waste of the country's resources, they are also a way for Cuba to win back some of those friends in the Americas. The fact that the government has chosen sports as its vehicle for survival is not surprising, given Cuba's rich athletic tradition. Sports in Cuba is, as decreed by Fidel Castro, a right of the people. (No admission is ever charged to a sporting event, although foreigners will have to pay for their tickets to the Pan Am Games.) It has always been used to promote diplomacy abroad and health at home. But Cuban sports is more than just an ideal or a tool for propaganda.
It is the Barrientos Games, a track and field meet named for Cuban track star José Barrientos, that was held at the Estadio Tropical in May. There were as many competitors as spectators, most of whom came to see two of Cuba's and the world's best: Ana Quirot, the 800-meter runner, and Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump. When Quirot, who looks not unlike a sorceress, was told she had to have a number pinned to the back of her suit—as if people didn't know who she was—she gave the meet official a look that might have transformed him into a dog. When she easily outdistanced her rivals without breaking a sweat, trailing the field was this little gray dog.
As for Sotomayor, he also won easily. When he finished packing up his gear, he picked up the three-year-old son of another athlete. Sotomayor carried the boy over to the high-jump bar and took him through the motions of the jump before gently depositing him in the foam. No special reason. Just the world's greatest high jumper helping the next generation of Cuban athletes over the bar.
Cuban sports is the XXIX Torneo Nacional de la Aguja Hemingway, a fishing tournament in the village of Cojímar, outside Havana. A lively two-day affair featuring salsa bands and children's relay races, the tournament was officially hosted by the minister of sports, Alberto Juantorena, the Olympic 400-and 800-meter gold medalist in 1976. The unofficial host, though, was an old man—not the old man—named Gregorio Fuentes. Gregorio was the guide that day on the trip to Paradise Key, where Hemingway saw the fisherman who inspired one of his greatest works. According to Gregorio, now 94, "Papa came back to the boat and said, 'I have a novel that they will make into a movie. I need something to write on.' So I lent him my paper and pen. When he had finished, he was very pleased. But he was also troubled. 'Gregorio, I don't know what to call it,' he said. 'Yes, you do,' I said. 'Where did this story take place? On the sea. And the fisherman was an old man, no?' "
Cuban sports is the Estadio Nelson Fernández in San José de las Lajas, where the national baseball team is practicing. "Say hello to Jimmy Abbott for me," says third baseman Omar Linares, a veteran of many games against U.S. amateur teams. "And Robin Ventura."
"Tell them we're ready to play in the big leagues," says centerfielder Víctor Mesa.