For many Americans, the island nation of Cuba is a great unknown. A former playground 90 miles from Key West that, since the Castro-led revolution in 1959, and the missile crisis and trade embargo in 1962, has been shrouded in mystery. It’s a shame that two countries that have a long history together, have been so cut off from each other for so long, despite the close proximity. The situation harkens back to the wall that used to divide Berlin between east and west, or the no man’s land that currently cuts the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel.
For me, Cuba has always been something that only lived in my heart and soul. My grandmother made the decision to depart the communist dictatorship in 1968 in order to give my mother, who was 8 years old at the time, a chance at a better life and an opportunity to determine her own destiny. Though the circumstances of the departure were tragic, my family always maintained a fondness for their homeland. They loved where they were from, despite a government and system that they could not abide, and they instilled that same love in me for a place I have never been.
That is until a month ago, when I travelled to Cuba with my family. It was the realization of a lifelong dream, and setting foot on Cuban soil immediately made me feel as though I had completed one chapter and begun another. It is an enchanting place, with beautiful landscape and architecture, and a diverse people who enjoy and appreciate what they have, maintaining a zest for life in the face of hardship. They could teach a lot to their northern neighbors. I felt at home and got discover my past by filling in the blanks on things that had only been passed down to me by word of mouth.
I finally had the opportunity to see for myself, draw my own conclusions and observe the place that had been so far away while being so much a part of who I am, and while I was there I noticed a few things. For one, I saw that there is a reason that the country’s unofficial motto is “No es fácil,” which translates to “It’s not easy.” That’s because life in Cuba is not always easy for its citizens. While the loosening of the government’s grip on the economy and the Cuban citizens’ ability to own property and operate businesses has helped improve the living situation, there are still many things we take for granted that they do without on the island.
The somewhat decently stocked grocery store that is located in the touristy section of La Habana was lacking in many things we expect to see (e.g., liquid milk, aspirin), and the stores for the citizens themselves are much worse. We also had a chance to experience a day long water outage in our beautiful Airbnb apartment, that otherwise accommodated the family nicely. The hope is that things will continue to improve but Cubans have learned the hard way that life can change drastically in an instant. Yet, while faced with hardships that many in the States can not imagine, the Cuban people love life and enjoy everyday of it. They manage to make the most of what they have, as evidenced by the innovative ways that they improvise in order to fix those classic cars without the necessary parts (or fix everything for that matter).
Another thing I noticed is the Cuban love for sports. And you can bet that anywhere you go there will someone watching, talking about, or playing sports. We always knew that baseball was big in Cuba, and my original plan was to go to one of the finals games for the Cuban National Series, but after the Habana Industriales were swept out of the playoffs by the Ciego de Ávila Tigres the day before I arrived, the logistics of traveling to view a game became much more difficult. So instead I watched the games on tv and decided to observe the general culture of sports on the island. And it’s obvious the the Cuban love for sports is so deep rooted that no hardship can come between the people and their beloved pastimes.
In the center of Habana there aren’t many large parks with baseball diamonds or soccer fields, so more often than not, you see children playing their favorite games right in the streets, or if they’re lucky, in an abandoned lot or parking lot. The two most popular things on the island are baseball, obviously, and soccer. Anywhere you go you see kids playing, I mean everywhere. Walking down the narrow colonial streets of Habana Vieja, I often had to sidestep impromptu baseball games and be careful that I didn’t get hit as I went on my way. A second of carelessness could result in a soccer ball to the face, so you constantly had to be on guard in case you became an unintended participant in the fun.
Most of these kids are lacking in proper equipment but that doesn’t stop them. Very few times did I see an actual baseball glove, and almost as scarce were baseball bats. Often these games were played using barehands and whatever stick could pass for a bat. Cuban ingenuity knows no bounds and I even saw balls that I’m not quite sure what they were made out of. The same went for soccer, which if I had to guess is being played just as much as baseball among the youth of the island. There’s a reason soccer is so popular around the world, and it’s that you need much less equipment than almost any other sport in order to make a true soccer match. All you need is the ball and some makeshift pylons to draw the boundaries of the net. And that’s how I saw the game being played all over the island.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Cuba is only filled with athletes who are forced to play in the streets due to a lack of proper facilities and equipment. On the contrary, Cuba has a decent state-run sports industry for a nation of its size. I already mentioned the baseball league, which has been a breading ground for many future MLB all stars. And while never having participated in an Olympic Winter Games, the country had been competing in the Summer games since 1894. Cuba has accumulated 209 medals overall and 72 gold medals. That’s good for 18th overall in the world, despite being the 78th most populous nation. Most of those have been in boxing (34) and I just know that American trainers and promoters are licking their chops as they await access to a new crop of Cuban boxers. As they should be.
The country of Cuba is one that is full of pride, determination and talent. Much like the music and food, sports flow through the blood of the island. There’s nothing that can stop the people in that country from loving, playing and enjoying whatever sport they like. As Cuba begins to rejoin the international community in a total sense, we should get used to the idea of seeing more and more professional Cuban athletes thrive on the world stage. Who knows, maybe I witnessed the next “El Duque” or Yoenis Cespedes right there in the streets of Habana and didn’t even know it.