They will bring 50,000 gallons of bottled water and 32 years of political baggage to an island where rum is rationed and signs are posted proclaiming "Socialismo o Muerte," Socialism or Death.
They will shuttle in on flights from Tampa, Fla., remaining just long enough to compete in what may be remembered as the last sporting event of the Cold War era.
They will be strangers in a strange land.
Americans in Cuba.
The 11th Pan American Games begin Friday with opening ceremonies in Havana and conclude Aug. 18. A delegation of 1,200 American athletes and officials -- plus nearly 500 media members -- will attend the games in what is believed to be the largest one-time invasion of American citizens on the island since President Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959.
"I'm completely clueless about what Cuba is like," diver Mark Lenzi said. "I do have worries, though. I've heard they just don't like Americans. Down in Fort Lauderdale every day, Cubans are coming onto the beaches on rafts. What does that tell you?"
Separating fact from fiction could be the newest Pan Am Games sport. Americans who recently have been to Cuba say that the games, drawing 6,000 athletes and officials from 39 nations in North, Central and South America, will proceed smoothly and that the official welcome will be friendly.
"I have a higher level of confidence for these games than any others I've been involved in, and that includes past Olympics in Calgary  and Los Angeles ," said Greg Harney, the United States Olympic Committee's site coordinator. "Things are going well. The Cubans will host the best-ever Pan American Games."
Of course, there could be some potholes. The Cubans are in the midst of an economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the hard times that shackled their chief benefactor, the Soviet Union.
"The bread lines were out in May," said George Roca, an economist from Adelphi University who visited Havana six weeks ago. "There were even lines for rum, and that is unheard of. People had to bring their own bottle to fill up. The attitude and psyche of the people was terrible, just depressing. All they have been told is to expect more work and more sacrifice."
Cuba apparently has invested more than $100 million, and a measure of national pride, to ensure the games' success. Sixty sports installations and 1,473 apartments have been erected in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the host cities. When USOC officials toured the sites in January, they tromped through mud and wandered around empty shells, wondering aloud if the projects could be completed on time.
"They had over 8,000 workers constructing the athletes' village," said Jim Flowers, national team coordinator for U.S. Swimming. "Everywhere you looked, you saw workers with hand tools, loading cement with buckets. Whatever you want to say about the facilities, you have to admit that they are completely handmade. Now I know how the pyramids were built -- step by step, stone by stone."
Athletes were recruited to work on the projects. Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump, pushed wheelbarrows filled with cement at the site of Estadio Panamericano, and Ana Quirot, 1990 World Cup champion, moved rocks. Synthetic turf for the track in the 35,000-seat main stadium came from Germany, and bowling lanes were imported from Japan. Spartan facilities were built for aquatics, cycling, tennis and rowing and canoeing.
"The Pan American Games are an international commitment our country undertook," Castro told journalists earlier this year. "It is a sacred promise we must honor. We are a country of honor."
To live up to its commitment to host the Pan Am Games, which it made in 1986, Cuba has been forced on what amounts to an economic starvation diet. There are shortages of virtually all basic foodstuffs, although officials say they will serve athletes meals containing 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. The 32-year-old revolution also is running on empty. To cope with a 35 percent reduction of Soviet oil, Cuba has imported 700,000 bicycles from China, and farmers are replacing their tractors with oxen.
"It's not like you can go to a corner grocery store and load up," said Ron Polk, the head coach of the U.S. baseball team that played a three-game series in Cuba earlier this month.
Polk recently ate dinner at one of Havana's most exclusive restaurants, Le Bodeguita del Medio. While the food was plentiful, Polk said he was surprised during a post-dinner trip to a rest room.
"There was a guy back there selling tissue paper for 25 cents a strip," he said. "You have to bring your own tissue paper. And the soap is like cardboard; it won't even come off in your hands. But I'll say this about the Cubans: They're wonderful hosts. It's a poor country, but the people try their best to make you feel welcome. Still, you're 90 miles from Miami, but you feel like you're a million miles away."
The Pan American Games, held since 1951 every four years in the summer preceding the Olympic Games, traditionally have been an unusual showcase. Political turmoil and poor planning are hallmarks of an event that often is dubbed the Pandemonium Games.
In 1959 in Chicago, organizers not only failed to provide adequate transportation or translators, but they also brought in horses that couldn't jump in the equestrian competition. In 1979 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, U.S. basketball coach Bob Knight scored a triple double for Ugly Americanism: berating officials, voicing ethnic slurs, shoving a police officer. Four years later in Caracas, Venezuela, athletes were given keys to their dormitory rooms, only to discover there were no doors. Nineteen athletes ++ fled the village in disgrace after the biggest doping bust in amateur history.
Scuffles between anti-Castro demonstrators and Cuban athletes chilled the atmosphere of the 1987 games in Indianapolis.
No one dares predict what will happen in Havana, especially with many foreigners congregating during a muggy month. Although the U.S. and Cuba have maintained sporting links for the past two decades, Cuba officially has been isolated by the U.S. government since the American ambassador was recalled in October 1960. Going to Cuba has created unique problems for USOC officials, who had to receive Treasury Department clearance for all items being shipped to the island.
On Friday, the 175-foot ship Good Samaritan left Miami for
Havana with a cargo of bottled water, office supplies, medical gear and athletic equipment for the U.S. delegation.
"The only thing we're definitely trying to do is at all costs not to rely on the Cuban medical system," said Ed Ryan, the USOC medical coordinator. "We feel the need to be self-contained is paramount. It's not a criticism to the Cubans, it's just a matter of poverty."
ABC-TV attempted to pay the Cubans $8.7 million for broadcast rights fees, but was blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department, which has been conducting a decades-long economic blockade of the island. The Cubans then gave away the rights. ABC sent over a boatload of equipment, including 15 mobile units, 45 cameras, 50 tape machines and 20 office trailers.
"There are a lot of obstacles for us to overcome," said executive producer Curt Gowdy Jr. "We are going in and setting up in very unusual circumstances. But we expect to overcome the problems."
The primary story of these games is the site, not the 31 sports. While most of the countries are sending their top athletes, the U.S. is bringing a delegation with few superstars. Don't expect to see Jackie Joyner Kersee or Carl Lewis in track and field, or NBA stars taking on the reining gold-medal champions of Brazil.
The U.S. is supplying its best in diving, wrestling, women's basketball and men's field hockey. The baseball team, composed mostly of college freshmen and sophomores, must finish in the top four to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona Spain, and the men's team handball squad must capture the gold medal to advance to the Olympics.
For the Americans, this will be a unique adventure.
Some, such as marathoner Jan Ettle of Freeport, Minn., will have to cope with the heat.
"I'm overdressing when I go out running," she said. "I'm wearing triple long-sleeved shirts. It's going to be a survival test. Forget about fast times."
Others, such as soccer player Dante Washington of Columbia, are wondering about the reaction of the crowds. Earlier this year, he played a soccer match in Panama and was pelted with ice.
"I'm trying to keep an open mind about the place," he said. "I heard Cuba used to be nice. But wasn't that a long time ago?"
And still others, such as pitcher Tony Phillips, who played in a three-game series in Santiago earlier this month, dread making a return flight in Cuba.
"What I'll always remember about Cuba is a doggone plane ride we took between Havana and Santiago," said Phillips, of Hattiesburg, Miss. "There was no air conditioning, and we were all sweating bullets. Remember that airplane the Cleveland Indians flew in that movie, "Major League?" Well, this one was worse. They didn't have any duct tape on the wings, though. If I had seen duct tape, I would have taken a cab."
But Phillips said the bumpy ride was worth making. He went to Cuba expecting to meet with the enemy. Instead, he found a few fans.
"I personally had never played in front of crowds like that before," he said. "Two hours before the game, there are 10,000 people in the stadium. Everything was real quiet when we batted, but when the Cubans came up to the plate, people were rattling drums and dancing. Still, when we hit a home run, everyone would stand up and cheer. It's nice down there, real nice. On a scale of 1 to 10, they give you an 11 for hospitality."
The probable Pan Am Games stars
* Teresa Edwards, United States, women's basketball: A 2-time Olympic gold medalist, Edwards is a 5-foot-11 guard whose creative play-making and accurate shooting binds a team riding a 41-game international winning streak.
* Kent Ferguson, United States, diving: A controlled, aerial stylist who finally emerged from the shadow cast by Olympic great Greg Louganis by winning the 1991 world 3-meter springboard championship.
* Michele Granger, United States, women's softball: The most dominant pitcher in the sport, Granger gave up only 3 hits and no runs and struck out 61 in 28 innings to lead the United States to the 1987 Pan Am Games gold medal.
* Omar Linares, Cuba, baseball: This 23-year-old third baseman hits with power and fields with elegance, although scouts note his skills have leveled off since he led Cuba to the 1987 Pan Am gold medal.
* Anthony Nesty, Suriname, swimming: The first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, Nesty shocked Matt Biondi in the 100-meter butterfly final at the 1988 Seoul Games.
* Denise Parker, United States, archery: Became the official novelty act of the 1987 Pan Am Games when she won gold medals in individual and team competitions at the age of 13. Added a bronze medal in team competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
* Ana Quirot, Cuba, track and field: Speed and durability are the trademarks of this national heroine who is the defending gold medalist in the Pan Am Games 400-meter women's run. Quirot is now an 800-meter specialist who once won 39 consecutive finals from 1987-1990.
* Felix Savon, Cuba, boxing: The best boxer you've never seen is a 6-foot-4, 201-pound heavyweight who has been compared to former Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson.
* John Smith, United States, wrestling: The 1988 Olympic gold medalist and a three-time world champion at 136.5 pounds, Smith won the AAU Sullivan Award and the USOC Sportsman of the Year award in 1990.
* Javier Sotomayor, Cuba, track and field: A sleek stylist who holds the high-jump world record of 8 feet, Sotomayor faces a Pan Am Games challenge against 1988 Olympic silver medalist
Hollis Conway of the United States.
Marylanders scheduled to compete at 1991 Pan Am Games:
Basketball: Walt Williams, Temple Hills.
Rowing: Michelle Knox, Annapolis.
Shooting: Libby Callahan, Upper Marlboro; Tammie DeAngelis, Rockville; Bill Dodd, Queenstown.
Soccer: Erik Imler, Bowie; Dante Washington, Columbia.
Softball: Avon Meacham, Mitchelleville.
Swimming: Brandi Wood, Lutherville.
Synchronized swimming: Diana Ulrich, Oxon Hill.
Tennis: Pam Shriver, Brooklandville.
Track and field: Tanya Hughes, Baltimore; Torrance Zellner, Baltimore.
0$ Yachting: Karen Long, Edgewater.
Pan Am Games
Dates: Aug. 2-18
Location: Havana and Santiago, Cuba
Countries eligible: The 39 nations of the Pan American Sports Organization in North, Central and South America.
Number of participants: 6,000
Estimated size of U.S. delegation: 1,200 (including 685 athletes)
TV: Channels 13 and 7, and Turner Sports cable