Among the items that ought to be interred with Fidel Castro’s ashes when Cuba’s “Maximum Leader” is formally laid to rest on Sunday are a baseball glove and a tracksuit.
Castro was not only an avid sports fan but an astute propagandist who wielded the power of sports with the same skill as a Cuban pitcher working the strike zone.
Like other dictators, Castro integrated sports into the national identity and used success on the playing field to raise national pride. But he went one step further because he had Cubans’ devotion to baseball at his disposal. He beat his archrival at its own game. America’s pastime was Cuba’s passion, and every time Cuba’s team won a championship, Castro could claim victory for the underdog island in his proxy war against the capitalist Yanqui empire.
Castro, who died on Nov. 25 at age 90, about one month short of the 58th anniversary of his revolution, outlived six U.S. presidents, dissidents and exiles who dreamed of returning home to a free Cuba.
But any measure of his legacy must include the fact that he also outlived the sports powerhouse he built. Castro, who abolished professional sports in Cuba in 1961, contended that the noblest athletes were amateurs, competing for the love of the people rather than the lure of the dollar.
“What is one million dollars worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” three-time Olympic gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson said when asked why he rejected a lucrative offer to box Muhammad Ali.
Yet today, baseball players are Cuba’s most valuable export. The national team, which dominated international competition until 2009, has been decimated by defections. Stadiums can’t be lit for night games, foul balls have to be fetched, bats and cleats are shared. The Big Red Machine is crumbling just like the magnificent mansions of Miramar.
Castro lived long enough t
o know that since Rene Arocha started the exodus in 1991, some 350 players have chosen to flee and that two dozen Cuban-born stars such as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu were on Major League Baseball rosters last season with contracts totaling more than $250 million. It must have galled him to hear defector Livan Hernandez say “I love you, Miami!” to the gusanos when he won a World Series title for the Marlins and to see Livan’s half brother, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, win three with the New York Yankees. Perhaps he was aware that Aroldis Chapman, who drives a Lamborghini with a “106-MPH” vanity license plate to signify his pitching record, was the Chicago Cubs’ closer during their World Series run.
For decades, Castro’s sports system was preserved in a time warp like Havana’s vintage Fords and Chevys. The U.S. trade embargo, his style of communism and Cuba’s stagnant economy enabled baseball and Olympic sports to thrive in isolation.
“Castro created an alternate universe,” said Peter Bjarkman, a former Purdue linguistics professor who has written five books on Cuban baseball and made 65 visits to the island. “It is doomed not just because Fidel is dead but because of the way the world has changed around Cuba. The concept of an inwardly focused nation-state is no longer sustainable, just as the reliance on sugar and tobacco was not sustainable. But it is remarkable that Fidel’s social experiments survived for half a century.”
World champions Ana Fidelia Quirot, Javier Sotomayor, Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelan, Cuba’s boxers, judokas and volleyball players were powerful, graceful embodiments of Castro’s philosophy.
But their prime is long past. The system that nurtured athletes in sports schools and produced more medals per capita than any other country began to decline when subsidies from the Soviet Union ended. Although INDER, the government’s sports ministry, has rented out coaches and athletes to other countries and pro leagues, there’s not enough money for the travel and equipment Cubans need to stay competitive.
Baseball fans don’t talk about the shrinking national league, which once fielded 16 provincial teams but has been reduced to six for the second half of the season. In Parque Central, aficionados talk about the Cubans in Major League Baseball.
“The great irony is that the defectors Castro labeled as traitors are now heroes for the fans on the street,” said Bjarkman, who predicts retrenchment by Raúl Castro on the ties he renewed with President Barack Obama. “Spring training, academies and an expansion franchise in Havana are not going to happen under President Donald Trump.”
Along the Malecon, “Havana’s couch,” young people don’t mourn El Jefe the way their elders might. They’re worried about a numb future under an increasingly repressive regime. Who cares about Cuba’s mediocre teams? When Bjarkman visited for games in October, only 2,000 of Estadio Latinoamericano’s 55,000 seats were filled. He used to love the atmosphere inside Cuba’s ballparks.
The Great Cheerleader is gone. I remember how Castro was everywhere during Cuba’s triumphant hosting of the 1991 Pan Am Games, doing the wave in the stands, draping medals around athletes’ necks. There was nothing to eat but scrawny pieces of chicken, but no matter. Cuban citizens sated their hunger with the satisfaction of beating Goliath from the United States.
The romantic ideal of sport as the right of the people: Was it an illusion? Herald photographer Marice Cohn Band and I went back two years later to find out. Through word of mouth and without INDER’s aid, we showed up unannounced on athletes’ doorsteps.
We went to Quirot’s apartment building, where she greeted us warmly and apologized as we traipsed up 11 flights of stairs (the elevator was usually broken or the power was out). She served us coffee (from the stove where she would later suffer disfiguring burns in a horrific accident) and spoke forcefully about the rewards of running for the revolution rather than riches.
We got to La Finca, the boxing team’s rural training center, with the aid of a driver whose Lada had to be coaxed around every corner. Expecting perhaps a top-secret gym, we found Felix Savon and teammates beating truck tires with metal poles. They showed us their Spartan dorm rooms and shared their beans and rice.
We visited high jumper Sotomayor, volleyball player Joel Despaigne, a gymnast, a wrestler, baseball players — they all lived in simple homes.
The unpretentious charisma of the athletes and the inspiration of their accomplishments against all odds spun a spell. But once the national anthem stopped playing and the curtain was peeled back, the impurity of the Bearded One’s motives were exposed. While it’s sad to think that sport for the love of the people was a fleeting conceit, it’s also sad to think that so many Cubans — athletes and fans — were duped by it. Cuba might have even been a greater sports power if Castro had allowed his athletes to compete with and against the best in the word.
The collapse of amateur Cuban sports was inevitable. The people can’t eat gold medals.