Cuba, troubled but proud, turns to games for a boost

HAVANA — HAVANA -- To understand the meaning of the 11th Pan American Games to Cuba you talk with athletes and fans and scholars, but you come back to images.

You look at a stadium filled with spectators, tourists on one side and natives on the other, people unable to mix and talk during a low-key, low-budget opening ceremony.


You look at bread lines that clog the city sidewalks and buffet tables heaped with meats and fruits and vegetables, all headed for the stomachs of officials and athletes.

And you look at Cuban President Fidel Castro, quietly yet proudly overseeing this assembly of 39 Western Hemisphere nations. There is Mr. Castro at Friday's opening ceremony, gesturing up to the cloudy skies and begging for rain to stay away. And there is Mr. Castro as father figure, hugging Cuban gold medalists and sharing in their triumphs.


Mostly, you come away with mixed messages. For 17 days in August there is this melancholy partyin Cuba, a shabby place caught in the vise of a United States economic embargo and a cutoff in aid from the Soviet Union.

Cuba is reaching out from its isolation 32 years into its revolution. But is anyone listening?

"Cuba is a little country with a lot of champions," said Julio Gonzalez, a lightweight boxer. "Sport has been in the first line of the Cuban government as part of education. In Cuba, athletes -- and especially the boxers -- get the best attention. And now the Pan Am Games are in our country."

Much is at stake for Cuba. In many ways, this is a giant exercise in public relations, both internally and externally. For the Cubans themselves, able to attend events free, the games represent a break from the daily reality of shortages and rationing.

"All the athletes want to do their best in order for the Cuban people to feel happy," Mr. Gonzalez said.

For the 17,000 foreign athletes and tourists, particularly from the 10 nations competing here that have no diplomatic ties with Cuba, the games provide a chance to gain a close and personal glimpse of a mysterious place. So important is exposure that Cuba gave away the television rights to ABC-TV and Turner Sports when the U.S. Treasury Department stuck to the embargo and blocked payment of an $8.7 million fee.

"Fidel Castro and the elite consider the games to be terribly important," said Gillian Gunn, a senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

"There is pride at stake becausemuch of the world says Cuba is on its last legs," she said. "The games are a symbol of the revolution's resilience. If they can put their best foot forward and be friendly, they hope to send back thousands of good-will ambassadors. And for the Cuban people, it is a change. Life is pretty grim for them now."


In conversations along street corners you hear the sound of grumbling discontent. But in the arenas and the stadiums, you hear the cheers.

Still, there is an official recognition that Cuba is facing dark days.

"In these difficult times you'll be an example of the courage and bravery of our people, proof that we're a fighting and invincible people," Mr. Castro told Cuba's athletes last week during a meeting at the Palace of Revolution.

"You are defending the prestige of Cuban sports and the honor of our country."

Sounding like a governor, Mr. Castro told the athletes that the Pan Am facilities, including a village of 1,300 apartments, will bring economic benefits to the country.

He said the $100 million event "would enable us to recover the foreign exchange we invested in these Pan American Games."


Besides money, the comandante counts medals.

"During the last [1987] Pan American Games, for every million Cubans we won over seven gold medals," he said. "That's at least 12 to 14 times more medals per million inhabitants than in the U.S."

Cuba, with 10.5 million people, won 75 gold medals in Indianapolis. The United States, with 250 million people, won 168.

The Cubans expect to do even better this time.

"It is a triumph for the Cubans to stage the games with such problems," said a heavyweight boxer, Felix Savon.

"That Cuba is a Third World country and can hold games to this magnitude and do so well -- for that I am proud. It is a privilege to perform in front of my people."


The athletes play and the people watch.