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WORLD SPORTS SCENE : In Cuba, It Doesn’t Pay to Help a Tourist

When a group of U.S. sports reporters arrived at the Habana Libre Hotel late last Monday night at the outset of a 48-hour tour of venues for this summer’s Pan American Games, a clear majority was more than a little disappointed to learn that Hemingway’s favorite bar, Floradita, was closed for renovations. So a few headed across the street to the next best place in town, the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor.

Even on a drizzly night, the line of customers winding through the park that surrounds the white-domed ice-cream stand seemed endless. It was just as well. None of us Yanquis had thought to exchange dollars for pesos.

But as we started to return to the hotel, we were approached by two teen-age girls who apparently had noticed our predicament. Elita, who spoke some English, told us to follow her. (Elita is a fake name, although it will not fool the Cuban authorities. They no doubt have the real one in a police ledger somewhere.)

She and her friend took the six of us to a remote part of the park, where there was a smaller version of the Coppelia. A little local knowledge goes a long way. There was no line there.

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We still didn’t have pesos, but Elita and her friend bought each of us an ice cream cone. The ice cream is not expensive, but pesos, like many things in Cuba, are scarce in Cuba. They had to dig deep into their purses.

We tried to repay them in dollars, but they wouldn’t accept. Aside from their generosity, they knew it was against Cuban law for citizens to have hard currency unless it is authorized by the government. As we discovered later, it also is against the law for citizens to have unauthorized contact with foreigners.

Elita’s friend seemed particularly aware of the latter because she was nervous as we all stood in the park and tried to communicate with each other. “I am afraid,” she said more than once in Spanish.

She was not pleased when Elita insisted that they take us on a walk down to the Malecon, the seaside drive. Elita told us that she was 18 and a geography student at the University of Havana. Her friend was a 19-year-old seamstress. Elita said it was the first time they had met Americans.

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That is the beauty of international sports. They give average people from different countries, backgrounds and political systems chances to meet and exchange conversation, perhaps even ideas. Long after the people of Seattle forget who won the basketball or synchronized swimming gold medals last summer at the Goodwill Games, they will cherish the moments they spent with visitors from the Soviet Union.

But Havana does not believe in glasnost .

Relations between the federal governments in Havana and Washington are as strained as at any time in recent years. A billboard along the Malecon portrays a young, determined Cuban soldier facing off against an aging and raging Uncle Sam. The soldier is saying, “We have absolutely no fear of you.”

Conversely, relations between the Olympic committees of the two countries have seldom been better. The United States plans to have the largest contingent of athletes and officials at August’s Pan American Games in Havana and Santiago. During last week’s tour, officials repeatedly assured journalists that U.S. athletes will be treated with utmost hospitality.

After the visit, U.S. Olympic Committee President Robert Helmick said that his only concern is the absence of a certified drug-testing laboratory in Cuba. But that, he added, is not the Cubans’ fault. They tried to purchase the necessary technology from the United States but were thwarted by Washington’s embargo on trade with the island.

The embargo also prevented the Cubans from buying bowling lanes from a U.S. company. There was some sentiment within the State Department that it should lighten up in this instance, but the hard-liners carried the day. If you allow the Cubans to have bowling lanes, next they’ll be asking for automatic pin-setters.

Bowling at the Pan American Games was, uh, spared when the Cubans bought lanes from the Japanese.

Upon returning from the Malecon, a couple of the U.S. journalists arranged to meet Elita and her friend early the next evening on a corner near the hotel. The journalists wanted to give the teen-agers some small gifts in appreciation for their graciousness.

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The girls arrived at the appointed time and seemed proud of their gifts. They parted with handshakes and smiles.

All of the journalists went to dinner that night in an exclusive restaurant outside of the city. When they returned to their hotel, Elita was waiting in the lobby. Obviously distressed, she had lost the color in her face and was shaking.

She said that she and her friend were arrested within minutes after leaving the two journalists earlier that night. She said that they had been charged with stealing the gifts, although she suspected that plainclothes police had watched the exchange and knew better.

It was more likely, a veteran of several Cuba trips explained, that Elita and her friend were being harassed for fraternizing with foreigners. Their fine of 60 pesos was consistent with a first offense of that nature. A second offense, he said, results in a 120 peso fine. The average monthly salary in Cuba is 150 pesos. A third offense leads to six months in jail.

To their credit, two Cuban sports officials intervened when the situation was explained to them by one of the journalists. The officials took the girls to the police station and managed to have their fines rescinded.

But the journalists learned a lesson that will serve them well when they return this summer to Cuba. Even when approached on the streets by friendly Cubans, stare straight ahead and keep walking. It may be rude, but it’s for their own good.

It’s difficult to say what Elita learned.

Late that night, she returned to the hotel and found a few of the journalists in--where else?--the bar. One of the female journalists had admired Elita’s earrings the night before. Elita wanted to give them to her.

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