HAVANA, Cuba -- Most of my conversations with ordinary Cubans here begin a lot like a sports-radio call-in show:
“Longtime follower, first-time visitor.”
(That usually draws a smile. The Cubans we’ve met have been warm and welcoming.)
I’ve wanted to visit Cuba for years, but the U.S. government’s Cuban policies make it extremely difficult for Americans to come here legally and spend money. And while U.S. fans weren’t allowed to obtain visas for this Saturday’s first-ever World Cup soccer qualifier between the U.S. and Cuba, U.S. sports journalists have been granted five-day visas to cover the game.
And so SI photographer Simon Bruty and I hopped in an American Eagle propeller plane on Tuesday morning in Miami and flew to Havana. After 24 hours on the ground, here are five thoughts from a first-time Cuba visitor:
• Walking through the city is like being caught in a time warp. We’ve already seen hundreds of 1950s-era American cars: Chevys, Chryslers, Buicks. (Two brothers with a 1950 Chrysler, an unlicensed taxi, drove us a couple miles along the Malecón waterfront on Tuesday.) There are no McDonalds, no Coke billboards and certainly no Starbucks. And while there’s a general shabbiness to a lot of Havana’s buildings (and plenty of grim Soviet-era architecture), there are also some striking Art-Deco structures from the pre-Revolution days when this town was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.
• I love talking to Cubans. As I’m writing this on Wednesday morning there are dozens of kids in school uniforms walking to classes outside my hotel window. Cuba has one of the world’s highest literacy rates, and you can tell by talking to them. “You can talk Proust with a guy who has holes in the knees of his trousers,” says Doug Logan, the former MLS commissioner, who’s half-Cuban. “You can literally do that.” I didn’t talk French literature with anyone on Tuesday, but I did have some fun conversations with a group of young people playing pickup soccer, with a young couple near the Hotel Nacional and with our cab-drivers José and Wilfred (who has a brother in New York City and wanted to talk about how the U.S. presidential election would affect Cuban-U.S. relations).
• Cuba loves sports. Soccer? Not so much. If you walk around Havana in the late-afternoon and early-evening you’ll see all sorts of physical activity going on. Pickup baseball, pickup basketball, even pickup volleyball. We found several games of pickup soccer as well, a sign that the sport’s popularity is increasing here. But Logan says that soccer is still less popular in this beisbol-mad country than it is even in the United States. There was enough interest in the U.S.-Cuba soccer game that several people asked me when it would be taking place. Then again, if they were fanatics they would already know. Keep in mind, only 4,000 fans showed up for Cuba’s first World Cup qualifier of the semifinal round last month.
• Public propaganda is alive and well. While ordinary Americans are welcomed here, it’s impossible to forget that you’re in one of the last old-school Communist countries on the planet. There is still plenty of anti-U.S. government and anti-Bush Administration propaganda on the route between the Havana airport and the city. Bush Is A Terrorist, all that stuff. If you walk down the Calle Obispo you’ll see all sorts of street-side book shops selling tomes on Lenin, Marx, Che, Castro and the Revolution. And the scene is truly bizarre at the U.S. Interests Section building on the Malecón (the closest thing to a U.S. embassy). After the U.S. started posting its own propaganda-style electronic messages a few years ago, the Cubans erected a wall of 138 flags to block the view. The whole thing is a little silly, if you ask me, but the 138 black flags are certainly a memorable image of defiance.
• Thumbs-up on the food here. We can’t give you a Starbucks update like Peter King, but we can give you the 411 on the food. It’s good. Really good. On the recommendation of SI editor Chris Hunt, Simon and I ate on Tuesday at El Aljibe, whose specialty dish is roast chicken with sour orange sauce served with rice, black beans and fried plantains. (A mojito might have been consumed as well.) We’ll be heading back for more before we leave town.
That’s all for now from Havana. We hope to start some interviews on Wednesday, so check back in for an update later.