President Fidel Castro, clad in familiar olive-green cap and fatigues, has been popping up daily at Cuban sports arenas for the past few weeks, leading the "wave" and awarding gold medals to winners at the XI Pan American Games. An old revolutionary with a new mission, he even stood at attention for the "Star-Spangled Banner."
"Our first wish is for everyone to feel good and feel at home with us," Castro told canoeist Mike Herbert, one of dozens of U.S. medalists he congratulated personally during the 16-day competition.
Indeed, many of the 18,000 athletes and other visitors who converged here from 38 nations left the island raving about Cuban sportsmanship, pride, organizational talent and hospitality. The games, which ended Sunday, were a propaganda coup in Castro's struggle against isolation of one of the world's last orthodox socialist regimes.
Yet for all the goodwill, there was something awkward about Cuba's encounter with the largest influx of Americans and other outsiders in 32 years of Communist rule. Behind the smiling bienvenido, visitors couldn't help but notice, was an invisible barrier that kept many Cubans from speaking freely with them.
I saw both faces of Cuba's attitude--the warmly exuberant and the darkly suspicious--at a baseball game in Havana's Estadio Latino Americano.
This wasn't just another ballgame. It was the United States vs. Cuba.
Not only are they the most powerful amateur baseball teams in the Western Hemisphere. They wear uniforms of nations whose official hostility has shaped three decades of Cuban history.
It was a matchup charged with nationalist emotion that went beyond winning or losing. A good moment, I thought, to gauge how Cubans felt about all the Americans--about 3,000 athletes, sports officials, celebrities and journalists--who had swooped down upon their island.
"Most Cubans think of those guys simply as a baseball team," said a 20-year-old Havana student I will call Raul. "Others think of them as Cold War missionaries," he added as the U.S. team of college stars trotted out for a pregame warm-up.
Judging from the respectful applause of 60,000 spectators jamming every seat and aisle, most Cubans regarded the visitors as a friendly invasion force to be welcomed and then reckoned with. American players said they were awe-struck by the reception and World Series atmosphere.
Raul was awed, too, at the superior size and brute strength of the American players as they swatted warm-up pitches into the outfield seats.
"Imagine," he exclaimed, "our tiny little island against such giants!"
I had invited Raul to the game for a Cuban fan's perspective and running commentary. I first met him on a visit to Havana seven months ago and found his views on the Cuban revolution refreshingly straightforward.
Raul admires Fidel Castro as a leader who achieved high standards of social justice for his people and helped them survive the American embargo. But he complains of a revolution plagued by burocratismo and privileges for the elite. He wants changes but isn't sure what form they should take.
Today, in his seat behind first base, Raul had his mind on baseball.
Raul told me he had a lot riding on the home team. He had bet a Cuban friend 100 pesos, about three weeks' wages, that Cuba would win today.
His spirits fell in the top of the fourth when the United States took a 1-0 lead, then soared in the same inning when Lourdes Gourriel drilled the ball over the left field fence to put Cuba ahead 2-1.
I wandered up the aisle to ask other Cubans what the game meant to them.
"Every American President inherits an obsession to crush Castro," said Frank Gonzalez, a publicist at Cuba's Prensa Latina news agency. "But I'm confident the American athletes will go home and say we are not savages or in chains. Sooner or later, your leaders will realize that Cuba is no threat to the North American people."
Cuba stretched its lead to 3-1 on a pair of doubles in the sixth. The stadium erupted in a wave. Then came the rhythm of drums and a collective chant: "Cuba, how beautiful is Cuba! Who loves it most defends it!"
Defend it against what? Most Cubans I approached were friendly but willing to talk about anything but politics.
"We try to treat you as a guest in our house," said Odalys Ortega, an outgoing young woman who invited me to sit with her group and kept calling me primo , or cousin. "But remember, we are sports fans, not politicians. We just want to see a good game. May the best team win."
As I spoke to a group of cheerleaders, 20 Havana high school girls in yellow tank tops and purple skirts, an older woman in the same uniform shooed me away. "You can't talk to him without permission," she scolded the girls.
It was a barrier many visitors to Cuba encountered this month.
Why the barrier exists is never officially explained, but the secret police enforce it with zeal. At one level, it is a Cold War instinct to protect a closed political system from outsiders who might exploit dissent.
At another level, it is meant to isolate a socialist economy of shared deprivation from the corrupting influences of foreign wealth. Cubans living above their means are denounced by neighbors. Even as the government lures dollar-spending tourists to the island's Caribbean beaches to help rescue the economy, many Cubans who associate with them are accused of being whores, gigolos, money-changers or black marketeers.
The contradiction between the barrier and Cuba's striving for international acceptance came into sharp focus at the Pan Am Games.
German Schmidt, a Spanish-speaking member of the U.S. equestrian team who was watching the ballgame, told me that Cuban barn attendants had been called to a meeting one day and ordered to stop being so "friendly" with foreign riders.
"Maybe it was because we were giving them pens and gum and cigarettes," Schmidt said. It evidently wasn't for talking politics. "There were these two Cuban girls. One kept telling us how great communism is. The other would just stand there and shake her head. She never opened her mouth."
By the top of the eighth, the U.S. team had narrowed the deficit to 3-2 and loaded the bases with nobody out. Then Jason Giambi struck out and Charles Johnson hit a sharp grounder toward center field. Cuban shortstop German Mesa snared the ball on a dive and flicked it to second from a supine position, starting a spectacular double play that ended the inning.
"Looks like you're going to win your bet," I told Raul, perhaps a bit too loud. In the ninth, relief pitcher Omar Ajete struck out the side to save a 3-2 Cuban victory. Raul leaped to his feet. The stadium roared.
Below me in a box seat sat Walt Myers, a communications officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, waving a huge American flag and congratulating Nelson Rodriguez, a Cuban pitcher who had beaten the Americans in the first Pan Am Games 40 years ago.
Outside the stadium, Cuban youths surrounded the American players' bus, collecting autographs.
But inside the secret police were working overtime.
Raul and I had become separated after the game, and five police agents had nabbed him on his way out. By the time they let him go, two hours later, his euphoria over the game had given way to the humiliation of a harsh interrogation.
An informer sitting near us in the stadium, it turned out, had heard us talking about the 100-peso wager. The police thought Raul had bet me $100 and won. "Where's the money?" they kept demanding.
When a body search turned up no dollars, the questions focused on his relationship with me. How had we met? When? What do we talk about?
"Is there a law against talking to foreigners?" Raul asked the police.
"No," was the answer. "Just be careful what you tell them."