MIAMI -- Sometimes, Vivian Ruiz closes her eyes and suddenly is transported back to her childhood. She sees the streets where she grew up in Cuba, her old school, her friends. The images are so clear, as if days have passed instead of years.
"I remember everything," she said yesterday, pushing aside her plate while sitting at a corner table at Sergio's restaurant in Miami.
Ruiz glanced across the room toward a television screen and was reminded again why she left.
The Orioles' exhibition game against a Cuban all-star team wasn't drawing much interest from the sparse lunchtime crowd, but Ruiz's emotions were stirred as Fidel Castro was shown in the stands at Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano.
"It all sounds so good and wonderful, the fact the Orioles go to Cuba and it seems like we're all getting closer. We're not. Everything he does is like a big theatrical production. This is just for the good of himself," she said.
"I came here when I was very little, 10 years old. I know what's still going on there. It's a very sad situation. Everybody believes what they see. They don't know what's really going on."
Like many in this Cuban-American community, Ruiz resented the publicity Castro gained from the Orioles' trip to Havana. She tried to ignore the game -- no small feat considering all three televisions at Sergio's were tuned to it.
"Look, they're showing the American and Cuban flags," she said, stealing another glance. "Everything he does has political meaning behind it. It's a shame that a lot of people don't realize that. The entire world thinks it's great and wonderful. It's just a big production, a big advertisement.
"How many people have to die on rafts trying to come here for people to realize you don't do that unless it's out of desperation?"
There's usually a line waiting to get into Sergio's, but half the tables were empty yesterday. None of the bar stools was occupied. The restaurant's owner, Carlos Rodriguez, figured many of his regulars stayed home to watch the game, which seemed to be the case at other local establishments as well.
"I guess even though they don't agree with it, they were curious," he said. "Maybe here, we pay attention in our own way, with disapproval.
"I don't agree with the Orioles going over there. Both my parents are ex-political prisoners. They've suffered a lot. Anything that helps Fidel Castro, anything that's in his favor, is bad for us."
At another table, Juan Flores made plans to visit Cuba in three months. His parents came to the United States in 1962, nine years before he was born, but he still has relatives in Havana.
"The first game shouldn't have been there. It should have been played in Baltimore. That wasn't a wise idea," he said.
"Castro's the communist. He should be kissing up to us."
Not far from Sergio's, men shuffled up to a window at Cafe Versailles, where they can get a paper cup filled with coffee and the morning's gossip. "Norman," 62, is one of the regulars, a self-employed jewelry designer with half his inventory hanging from his neck and wrists. He said he left Cuba in 1962 and hasn't been back since, even though his uncle, aunt and cousins remain there.
"I didn't like the system then," he said, "and I don't like it now."
He wasn't thrilled with the Orioles' choice of opponent, either.
"It makes no sense," he said. "What they're doing is going over there to entertain the people that the government chose, the select people. What kind of diplomacy is that? You bomb Yugoslavia for violating civil rights, but the Orioles are going where there are no civil rights, where the people of Cuba can't even enjoy it. It's a double standard."
Farther down Calle Ocho, Pete Betancourt waits for more children to arrive at Coral Gate Park. He's the coach of a Cuban-American Little League team, Palmar Junco, and on this day, the baseball being played by a bunch of grade-school boys is preferred over a certain people-to-people exchange.
"I'm totally against it," said Betancourt, whose parents fled Cuba in 1962. "If you're against the system, they won't let you play on the national team. They won't let you do anything. There's absolutely no freedom of expression there. I don't think Major League Baseball has any business being over there. I think Peter Angelos has good intentions, but he's really out of the loop. He doesn't know what's taking place.
"For Cuba, it's propaganda like you wouldn't believe. The U.S. has nothing to gain. And politically, they haven't done anything on that island to merit this kind of reward."
Pub Date: 3/29/99