HAVANA — HAVANA -- They said it was a depressing place, a tropical police state with little food, little work and little hope.
They said this charismatic, bearded president who strutted around in olive-drab fatigues was prepared to use a sporting event to strengthen his political power.
They said that, instead of receiving bread, the people were being given a circus.
They were right, and they were wrong.
When the 11th Pan American Games end today, the curtain will come down on an island that, for many United States citizens, remains a place of mystery and mischief. This was a sporting event that came with a layer of political wrapping. There were 37 other Western Hemisphere nations here, but the focus was on the two neighbors separated by 90 miles of ocean and an ironclad economic embargo. Cuba and the United States were playing games with each other, and, somehow, it all worked.
But the more you saw of Cuba, the less you were really sure of. Beware of absolutes in a country without hard currency and hard facts. Rely on the images.
The sports' venues were built despite harsh economic conditions, but . . . rain poured down the stairs of the new swimming complex. The plumbing in the new main track stadium leaked. A Turkish bath would have been cooler than the refurbished Kid Chocolate boxing hall.
Food was plentiful for athletes, tourists and journalists. But residents lined up for ground meat processed in China and the Soviet Union.
Fidel Castro was the official mascot of the games. He was everywhere. The guy must be worth 10 on the point spread. He did the wave, and the Cuban women defeated the United States in basketball. Then, he showed up for the medal ceremony, smoothed his beard and kissed every player in sight.
He clutched a railing and appeared to try to swim as Cuba's Mario Gonzalez won the 200-meter breast stroke. He handed out medals in team handball and posed for pictures with everyone, including a group of excited U.S. players.
On Aug. 13, he turned 65, the island's mandatory retirement age. Surprise, he showed up for work the next day. There was even a rumor that he was stricken with a heart attack. Reporters scurried around the city in search of President Castro. They found him -- at the bowling hall.
A Western diplomat who wore a gray wool suit and black wingtip shoes and sat in an air-conditioned office on a morning when the temperature reached 95 degrees said athletes and tourists were seeing a "sanitized version" of Cuba.
Well, stores had shoddy merchandise if they had anything at all, most Havana buildings appeared on the verge of collapse, buses were packed so tight that passengers spilled out of the doors and held on to railings, and 50-pound bicycles from China nearly outnumbered the 40-year-old cars.
Teen-agers hanging out after midnight on the oceanfront Malecon talked of rap music as if it were something new. Some spoke of going to the United States. Public unrest and dissent, often predicted, never materialized. The longest lines in sight were at Coppelia, the city's outdoor ice cream shop. The loudest arguments were over baseball.
The sports were grand. Cuba's Ana Quirot starred on the track by winning gold medals in the 400 and 800 meters, dedicating her triumphs to President Castro and then lecturing about why black athletes were genetically superior to white athletes.
The medal race became a cliffhanger. The United States, which didn't bring many of its best athletes, will finish as the overall medal leader. The Cubans, with a powerful boxing team waiting in the wings for today's final act, could win the most golds. An athletic truce between two countries without diplomatic relations.
But this event won't be remembered for medals. It will be remembered for a game of baseball played on a warm Sunday afternoon in a stadium that was filled four hours before the first pitch was thrown.
Cuba and the United States have little in common politically. But on this they agree: Baseball is a passion.
For 3 hours, 5 minutes, the crowd roared and waved flags, and, when it was over -- after Cuba had defeated the United States, 3-2 -- all anyone could talk about was the game-saving double play turned in the dirt by a shortstop named German Mesa.
But the games are ending. A flame at the Pan American Stadium will be extinguished under the stars. The U.S. athletes will return home.
The Cubans will remain in the shadow of a neighbor, out of sight, but rarely out of mind.