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Night Talk in Cuba: Freedom, Truth, Jordan

WASHINGTON POST

At 3 a.m. the athletes are asleep in their village. The bars and the restaurants are making last call. Officials of the Pan American Games, having made it through another day of staging this competition, are relieved. Cuba’s capital city is at rest, except for The Malecon.

There is no cable TV here, no “Nick at Nite” to impede conversation. The Malecon is a long, curvy boulevard with decaying high-rise apartment buildings on one side, the Atlantic on the other. Sitting on top of the breakwater for miles are thousands, probably tens of thousands of Cubans, virtually all under 30, born after the revolution. They sit and talk every night, many times all night. They all have stories to tell, but usually no one but each other to tell them to.

This night, Wednesday into Thursday, they are startled to see three American reporters walking The Malecon. The young Cubans are feeling bold during these Pan American Games because they can talk to foreigners relatively without fear of the police, who stand every 500 yards or so.

“Can we talk to you? You are Americans?” one voice calls out in broken English. “Let us talk to you. It is dangerous for us to talk to you before the Pan American Games, after the Games. But we can talk to you right now? You are periodistas (journalists), correcto?”

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Every 10 feet, another Cuban calls out. “Let us talk to you. The police won’t bother us because you are black, like we are.”

They want to know about Michael Jordan -- “Dios Mio! We have seen him once here, on TV,” one shouts. “Michael Jordan is God!” -- they want to know about rap music, but mostly they want us to stop the small talk and ask what they think about their revolution.

One by one, their voices grow soft, almost to a whisper. “My grandmother was born over there, she lives in Tampa,” one man says, pointing north toward Florida. “Half my family is American but I cannot visit them, I cannot talk to them because I am Cuban. Our parents, they like the revolution. We don’t like it. Go on, ask them. Ask them all.”

Another man, 28, once was allowed to work in East Germany. He assumed he would be able to keep his passport once he returned to Cuba. “It was not possible,” he says. He speaks German, French and keeps apologizing for his English, which isn’t bad at all. He quotes Sartre and Hemingway in English and Spanish. He is coal black, with chiseled features and rastafarian dreadlocks. Asked if he misses the freedom of travel, he bristles, “I don’t think about that, I am back in Cuba. ... I am not telling you the truth. Yes, I want to travel, but it is best not to think about what you cannot have. In Europe, I saw American football and I love it. I want to see Miami Dolphins, but is not possible.”

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Walk 100 yards further and another Cuban man, 24, says rap music has been big here the last six months. When told rap has been big in the United States for 10 years, his eyes bulge. “We love the rap by that enemy group. ... Si, si, si, Public Enemy. ... ‘Fight The Power.’ Oh man, they took that away from us. The government, they don’t like the words ‘Fight The Power That Be.’ They let us keep Hammer. But he has no palabras. Where are su palabras, his words? Can you leave us some rap music, por favor? Anything you don’t want?”

For two hours, Nicole Watson of TNT, Bryan Burwell of the Detroit News and I walked The Malecon. Between us, we must have talked to 50 Cubans, all young, educated. “Don’t just write about the Games,” one says. “Tell our story. Dija la verdad. Tell the truth. We want liberty just like you have.”

Foreign correspondents here say Cuba has the highest literacy rate in Latin America. Many along The Malecon are college-educated. The revolution and socialism may be embraced in the rural areas, but not along this breakwater where curiosity rages.

The message was the same down The Malecon and back. “They drive you American periodistas to what they want you to see and tell you what beautiful people the Cuban people are,” one man says. “We are a beautiful people, but we who were born after the revolution, we hate this system. You are here for a story, to ask us what we feel about the Games. But the story of Habana is not the Games. The real Cuban people cannot come inside your hotels, cannot eat with you. You want to know how we feel about you. I am a white Cuban, but you have rights in Cuba este momento that I don’t have. You are free to do things in Cuba that I can never do.”

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Not one person sees any connection with a wall coming down in Germany and a less visible barrier being lifted here. “We are in jail,” the white Cuban says. “Not just physical jail, but a jail of thought, a jail of ideas, a jail of music. Games for Cuba cannot change that. You go to the Olympics in Barcelona? We cannot go see our countrymen perform.”

We try at one point to walk quickly back to the hotel, a building these vibrant, angry men and women can only watch us disappear into. Every 10 steps we are stopped by someone else. They ask us to teach them the latest U.S. handshakes, then embrace before leaving. “You come back tomorrow, we will be here,” one voice cries out.

The passion of the evening, plus the effort put forth to translate into English tire the one who calls himself “Rasta-man.” Not surprisingly, when the fire dies the conversation turns back to sports. “Have you seen our volleyball player, Joel Despaigne?” he asks. Rasta-man cannot believe Jordan has played in Miami, 90 miles from here.

“You think we will ever have liberty?” he asks. After a long silence he says, “Give me your (address), I will write to you when I am in Estados Unidos. You meet me in Miami and we will go, you and I, to see Michael Jordan play, si?

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Si.


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