MIAMI — *TC MIAMI -- In the restaurant called La Esquina De Tejas in the Little Havana section of Miami, they talk of food and politics and sports.
And, now, they're talking about the Pan American Games, which will begin Friday in Havana.
"My heart is with Cuba, but my head is with America," said Hector Lopez, a discount department-store owner who fled Cuba in 1961.
In Miami and Dade County, home to thousands of Cuban exiles, there is apparently a jumble of contradictory emotions about the impact this multisport event will have on a country that has been isolated by the United States since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Thirty-two years into the revolution, Cuba will be host to more than 17,000 athletes and journalists from the Western Hemisphere.
On the one hand, Lopez hears from his relatives in Cuba that food is scarce and that morale is low. On the other, he hopes that food shortages will disappear, even if only for the 16-day period of the event.
"These are Castro's Games," he said. "In another time, it will be the Cubans' Games. For his purpose, Fidel has been destroying the country the last few months. No food. No carnival. I am from Santiago de Cuba. The carnival in Santiago is the event of the century, and they canceled it."
Others tell similar stories -- of a country where bread is rationed and soap is hoarded, of millions of dollars and pesos poured into construction projects related to the games.
"Castro is just a dinosaur on his way to extinction," said John Alvarez, a contractor who left Havana with his family 22 years ago. "He is hanging on to this old, fading way."
At the Pan Am Games four years ago in Indianapolis, veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion protested the presence of the Cuban athletes. Other activists handed out leaflets urging Cubans to defect, and some even threw the leaflets onto the field as the Cubans were playing baseball.
This time, political opposition to the Games is muted.
"I don't think the U.S. will get anything from the games, and I don't think Castro will, either," said Tomas Fuste, news director of radio station WQBA. "These games don't give anything to anybody."
Still, there are worries. What if there are protests in Havana during the games? How will Castro react? What about the safety of American athletes?
"Some sectors of this community are expecting something to happen in a sense to challenge the government or to provoke unrest," said Maria Cristina Herrera, executive director of the Institute of Cuban Studies.
"This is possible, but I hope it doesn't happen," she added. "The Cubans are preparing for it. They are training special, anti-riot troops in Aldabo and Quivican. This I have heard. If there are protests,it will end up like Tienanmen Square."
Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, also seems apprehensive about the games. says American athletes should compete in Havana and that Castro should be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to stage the event, with no hope of making a profit.
"We know they are training up to 5,000 riot police," he said. "We also know they are training a quick reaction battalion, civilians who will stop the protests with a club."
Hernandez pulls a map of Havana and the nearby towns from his desk. He points to yellow highlights on the map, a tunnel here, a town there, places where, he said, he has been told the Cubans are storing military supplies and equipment.
"We understand Fidel is preparing himself for any eventuality," he said.
But what if the games are a raging success? What if there is plenty of food to eat? What if the athletes go away winners and the tourists go away happy? What then to make of the Pan Am Games, Fidel's Games?
"Of course, this is Castro's way of showing to the world that the situation is not as bad as people say and he is still in charge," Hernandez said. "He has always put on a show when things are critical to prove he is in control."
But Alvarez, a contractor whose soft voice belies a hard line against Castro, said Cuba's most difficult days will begin when the Pan Am Games end.
"The problem is not opening up, it's closing down," he said. "This may be the biggest job Fidel has had since the revolution."