SPORTS: Sports took back seat on trip to Castro's Cuba

August 14, 2006

It was one of the worst from the perspective that so many of the things I take for granted here-clean water, dependable electricity, food you could trust, communications tools and, most of all, freedom-weren't to be found there, at least not consistently. But that perspective also made it one of the best experiences because it reminded me of all the wonderful things we have here in America, starting with freedom.

It was heartbreaking to travel around Havana and imagine how magnificent the city must have been in its pre-Castro heyday, only to see it now literally crumbling before our eyes. Yet it was inspiring to see how industrious and ingenious the Cubans were, especially when it came to keeping those rusting pre-1960 cars and buses running.

Journalistically, it was a wonderland, with so many stories to pursue. Sure, there was competition to cover, especially-for Hoosiers back home-the exploits of the USA men's basketball team coached by Purdue University's Gene Keady, which lost to Puerto Rico in the semifinals and had to settle for the bronze medal.

But covering the competition was only a small part of my daily job. There was the visit to Jose Conseco's boyhood home and the neighborhood ballpark where he learned to play. I literally bought an interview with one of the "businessmen" in Cuba's thriving black market, where American dollars carried major clout. I attended Mass-with my friend John Lopez of the Houston Chronicle-in a breathtakingly beautiful church that had been maintained only through the tender loving care of its parishioners, and met a young priest who delivered a homily that brought tears to our eyes (Lopez, fluent in Spanish, translated).

One day, I was walking into the track stadium when there was a bustle of activity behind me. I turned and, behold, just a few steps away and surrounded by bad-looking dudes, was El Presidente himself, Castro.

Also memorable was a journey several hours east to a place called Verra Dero, which was like stepping into another world: modern hotels, upscale restaurants and clothing-optional beaches packed with European and Canadian tourists. Back in Havana, I had a couple of mojitos at one of Ernest Hemingway's haunts, La Bodeguita del Medio (The Restaurant in the Middle of the Street). We discovered there was a contingent of U.S. Marines-who knew?-who lived in a house in Havana, and they invited us to party, drink good old Budweiser, and watch American sports.

And we all did slice-of-life stories with anti-Castro Cubans who would tell us how difficult life in communist Cuba really was, though most spoke in whispers and only on condition of anonymity, lest they be identified by Castro's communist loyalists. Midway through the Games, that prompted the Cuban minister of information to summon the U.S. press corps together, admonish us for not sticking to "sports stories," and threaten to revoke our credentials and send us home.

My favorite piece was sports-related, though: an interview with the only golf pro in Cuba, a three-handicapper who ran a nine-hole course south of Havana. Visited only by foreign diplomats, it was called, appropriately, the "Diplo Club." I still have the hat. The story ran in Indianapolis on the same day the PGA Championship began at Crooked Stick.

The Cuban people were beautiful, warm and friendly, as fascinated by us-remember, it was the first visit of Americans en masse in more than 30 years-as we were by them. When the Games ended, most of us left behind all our toiletries, many of our clothes and, best of all, our valuable dollar bills, which were by far the currency of choice.

We also left behind friends. In my case, it was a man named Pedro who served as the interpreter at the basketball venue. He was intelligent (an accountant), witty, married with a little boy, and very anti-Castro. For about a year after I left, we were able to correspond through a third party in Canada. His last letter concluded with a promise to show up on my door and demand the T-bone steak I said I'd grill for him. I've not heard from Pedro since.

Which is among the many reasons I hope Castro dies. Soon. Because, if he does, maybe there's a chance I can learn if Pedro still lives.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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