By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 27, 2000; Page A22
The throng is a locus of sports craziness in a country crazy about sports. To its members, the state of the Cuban baseball team's left-handed pitching and the strength of the U.S. squad are more urgent matters than warnings of impending power shortages or what state media describe as a "murderous" American immigration policy.
But as with many debates here, politics has crept into the picture, boosting the Cuban government's concerted effort to infuse sports-centric Cuban youth with national enthusiasm as the Elian Gonzalez episode recedes into memory.
The government refuses to allow a female long jumper and a male water polo player who defected to Spain to compete in the Olympics under the Spanish flag; it publicly decried the matter as an example of "athlete stealing" by rich countries. Cuba's 35-year-old foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, has warned the departing national team to prepare for "blackmail, bribery and harassment" from Americans encouraging defections at the Games in Sydney. And Cuban officials claimed victory after the International Amateur Athletic Federation recently cleared the Cuban world-record-holding long jumper, Javier Sotomayor, who tested positive for cocaine last year, to participate in next month's Games.
Taken together, Western diplomats and others here say, the almost daily public pronouncements on Cuban athletic struggles and triumphs represent a facet of President Fidel Castro's efforts to reach out to the more than half of this island's 11 million residents who were born after the 1959 revolution. The government has grown concerned that, as it exposes its socialist system to crowds of mostly European tourists and embraces a dollar-based economy, young people will become more interested in McDonald's than Marx, and Cuba's brand of orthodox socialism will wither.
For more than a year, the Cuban government has appealed to young people by lashing out at foreign nations. First, Cuba filed suit against the United States in its own courts, seeking billions of dollars in damages allegedly caused by a four-decade embargo. The trial transcripts have become required reading in Cuban high schools and colleges. Then came Elian, the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor whose father's struggle to bring him back from Miami led to a series of youth protests here for the child's return.
Now the Cuban government has turned to the Sydney Games to highlight what it perceives as its underdog political status around the world as it prepares its own bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
A banner hanging from the sprawling Sports City complex at the corner of a major intersection declares: "To Sydney for the glory of the motherland." Nightly programming on Cubavision, a state-run television station, reruns past Cuban Olympic glories, many at the expense of the United States.
"Right now this whole country is watching and waiting for the Olympics," said Raul Gonzalez, 32, a technician in a Havana clinic and frequent participant in the Parque Central debate.
Media condemnations of drugs and money in sports are frequent. One attack on capitalist athletics features Dream Team basketball player Charles Barkley, dressed in a USA uniform, sticking his tongue out at the camera.
"In addition to being the scenario of a sporting confrontation to demonstrate the results of intense and exhausting days of training, it will also be a place to defend, with words and action, the nation that is seeing you off with pride," Perez Roque recently told the departing 241-member team. "Cuba will continue its battle to restore the true principles of the Olympic spirit, will continue to denounce corruption and to attack the mercantilism which is currently defiling and curtailing the full development of sports as an expression of friendship and relations between nations."
A former professional baseball prospect, Castro has linked sports and socialism since the earliest days of his revolution, seeing mass participation in athletics as a way to organize the population and demonstrate his system's success on the world stage.
And Cuba's success has been astounding. The country has won more than 30 gold medals since the revolution, after having won only one medal, a silver, in the previous five decades. But there have also been spectacular embarrassments, including the defection of 11 athletes and a coach at last year's Pan American Games in Canada.
Both achievements and black marks can be attributed to Castro's construction of a nearly cradle-to-grave sports scouting and training system that spots aspiring athletes as early as the first grade. Although the government frequently praises the virtues of amateur sports, Cuban athletes are paid as professionals. Salaries amount to about $25 a month, excluding free housing and other perks of a socialist system.
By contrast, the average Major League Baseball salary this year is $1.57 million. That disparity has prompted many Cuban baseball players to defect, most recently third-baseman Andy Morales, who succeeded in leaving Cuba by raft on his second attempt.
In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, top Cuban officials have taken steps to reduce the incentive for athletes to defect. Most notably, the government has refused to allow long-jumper Niurka Montalvo or water polo player Ivan Perez to compete for Spain at the Sydney Games. Olympic rules require an athlete to live in a country for three years before being allowed to compete under the adopted flag. Both athletes defected more recently, and Cuba has declared that it will not issue the required waiver.
"It's international law and it should be respected," said Elucide Sago, 30, taking a break from the debate in Parque Central. "We're a small country and every win for us is very significant."
A worker at the La Corona tobacco factory, however, said the government is acting to save itself embarrassment through defeat or defection. He said Castro has left four top-quality players from Industriales, the Cuban equivalent of the Yankees, off the team for fear they would defect, and will not allow Montalvo to compete because of her skill.
"They know she is a favorite for a medal," said the 42-year-old, who said he wished to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals. "In other ways, the government is not as interested in winning as in making sure no one leaves."
Along the edge of the cluster at Parque Central, Yorluis Martinez firmly agrees with the government view on the Montalvo case. But Martinez, 20, a member of the Cuban national judo team, is more preoccupied with baseball. He can recite Atlanta Braves star third-baseman Chipper Jones's home run statistics, batting right- and left-handed. He uses them to prove that Omar Linares, Cuba's star third-baseman, is superior.
"This is an incredible team," Martinez declared while dancing a jig with
his index finger raised over head. "But then I am a fanatic."
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