Cubans have always been haunted by the sea. First it brought hurricanes––a word invented by Cuba’s first inhabitants. It brought Columbus and three Spanish ships in 1492. It brought treasure fleets soon after, along with the total extermination of the island’s original population within a generation. It brought nearly a million Africans in chains from the Ivory Coast on slave ships. It brought gold-starved pirate ships eager to plunder loot. It brought neocolonization from battleships. It brought tourists on cruise ships. It brought Fidel and 81 other revolutionaries on a leaky boat in 1956. It took 14,000 children from their worried parents, flown across the gulf during Operation Peter Pan. It took 125,000 more people during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. It would take over a million Cubans––men, women, and children––on rafts, smugglers’ boats or anything else that floats.
It also took the lives of an estimated 30 percent of all the people who tried to escape, making the Florida Straits one of the largest cemeteries on earth.
Miami Marlins pitcher and Santa Clara native José Fernández, too, died in these waters—in a tragic boating accident off of Miami Beach in the early hours of 25 September—but as an American citizen, years after surviving several harrowing attempts to cross the straits. Three times he and his mother had tried to get to Florida by boat, and each time the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted them and sent them back to Cuba. Fernández spent a year in prison for trying to defect. On their fourth attempt, they tried a different route, through Mexico. Out on the ocean, a wave swept someone off the boat and Fernández dove in to help—not realizing that the person overboard was his mother. They made it to Cancun, then Texas, before settling in Tampa in 2008.
Last March, Air Force One flew across these same troubled waters and over their beloved Malecón, Havana’s concrete windowsill on the world, to deliver an American president to their island. I decided to head there at the same time.
When you first arrive in Cuba and, like Alice, try to make sense of the patterns on the wall while falling down the rabbit hole that is daily Cuban existence, sooner or later a local will remind you of their country’s most famous adage: “Life is a joke to be taken very seriously.” In Havana, long the tropics’ answer to Casablanca, after decades under his rule, Cubans used to joke that if Spanish lacked a future tense Fidel Castro would be silenced; he only spoke in broken promises.
“A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past,” Fidel once warned his people. And so, this year, Cuba’s future––whatever that might end up being––finally looked to be getting the better of the fight.
Havana’s beloved and rickety freshly-painted sky-blue, 55,000-seat capacity Estadio Latinoamericano played host to President Obama’s final stop on the historic 48-hour visit to Havana: a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National team. It was the first visit by a sitting American President in 88 years and, after the series of reforms across the country rolled out over the last few years, cautious optimism was felt all over Havana.
There wasn’t an empty seat in the house, yet, in accordance with the Cuban state’s philosophy on sport and cultural events, not a single ticket was sold for money, scalped outside or online. Nobody made a dime.
This was why so many understood the hell it had been for so many Cuban athletes to remain on the island. Anywhere else on earth, they were sweepstakes winners. Yet after they performed before a crowd of Cubans at El Latino or Kid Chocolate arena, they laughed off being nervous about pitching at Yankee Stadium or boxing at Madison Square Garden: No matter what their paydays or television ratings, there was always something profoundly lacking. Even for many back home that celebrated their escape, there was no better place to see them shine than in Havana.
Team Cuba pitcher Jose Angel Garcia. Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III
Like all sporting events on the island since Fidel Castro banned professional sports in 1962, tickets were free and, on this unique occasion, their distribution fiercely protected. Last year in Las Vegas, some ringside seats for Mayweather-Pacquiao were listed for a reported $350,000. Here, for this, high rollers and fat cats couldn’t buy their way in. Even if they had, there were no luxury boxes or VIP seats waiting for them. No advertising. No corporate sponsors anywhere or a corporately named stadium. Perhaps most peculiar of all, El Latino, the largest stadium on the island, might also rank as the largest stadium on earth without anything resembling a serious parking lot. Before Fidel and the revolutionaries arrived in Havana in 1959, Old Havana, now a world heritage site, was to be leveled to build a gigantic parking lot for a planned island casino to be built next to the harbor that now welcomes American cruise ships.
Even as the rebels saved the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, they lost relations with the patronizing neighbor to the north for half a century. There were an estimated 638 CIA sponsored attempts at assassinating Fidel Castro. On October 6, 1976, Air Cubana flight 455 was shot down and as recently as the 1990s, tourist hotels being blown up. Some of those Cuban-Americans who claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Cuba were given safe haven in South Florida and never prosecuted.
The Cuban government took extraordinary measures to ensure no backdrop in Havana became the modern reincarnation of Dealey Plaza. Yet as Cuban-American writer and ESPN personality Dan le Batard reminded American listeners on his radio show, “Castro’s our Hitler.” For many in South Florida, especially in the older generations, there is no hyperbole in that view.
Yet, for many Cubans on the other side of the Civil War that has been fought across 90 shark-infested miles, Fidel Castro remained their Martin Luther King and George Washington rolled into one. Nelson Mandela, while branded as a terrorist by the U.S. until this label was finally rescinded in 2008, credited the Cuban Revolution as a major source of inspiration for his own struggle for freedom in South Africa. At one time Fidel Castro was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize while simultaneously being brought up on war crime charges from Spain.
In the protracted lead-up to the game, someone from ESPN on hand at the game couldn’t resist taking a shot at Cuba and tweeted a photo of the surrounding humble neighborhood conditions outside El Latino for Sports Center’s twitter account with the caption: “Meanwhile, next to the stadium in Havana…”
Instead of piling on, Americans from across the country quickly responded with “Meanwhile…” photos from the neighborhood conditions of their own local stadiums. A photo of Willet’s Point outside Citi Field showed the crushing results of lacking sewers and sidewalks. More photos from shattered surrounding areas outside stadiums in Detroit, Atlanta, the Bronx, Chicago soon followed. “You should see what it looks like next to 80 percent of fields in America,” tweeted Thomas Brendel in reply to ESPN. Adam Weinstein tweeted a photo of one of the many condemned buildings in Bristol, Connecticut: “@SportsCenter Meanwhile, outside the Worldwide Leader In Sports.”