Cuba's coat of glitz for Pan Am Games can't hide decay Event begins against backdrop of food lines, crumbling housing

August 02, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

HAVANA -- A teen-ager wants to know whatever happened to Michael Jackson and what is the real story behind Milli Vanilli. Sit down, kid, you won't believe this.

Another teen-ager wants to change your money or buy your jeans or sell you a woman or a man. He's not too choosy.

Waiting is the national sport. Chinese-made loafers arrive at a shoe store, and a line forms. People stand hours for two fist-sized rolls of bread. A 5-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger film plays at a movie theater across from the old capitol building, and hundreds clog a city block for a weekday matinee.

There is no line, though, at the store that sells videos of Fidel Castro's greatest hits for $20.95. Relive "Fidel in Brazil," "Televised Aggression" and that all-time favorite, "Socialism Can Indeed Solve Our Problems."

Welcome to Cuba. Somehow, a shipwrecked country of 10.6 million is putting its dwindling money and its human muscle into playing host to the 11th Pan American Games, which begin a 17-day adventure today.

More than 5,000 athletes from 39 Western Hemisphere nations, including the United States, will attend the 31-sport festival. They will come to a country that is trying to put on its brightest face in the midst of perhaps its harshest economic times.

The sights and sounds of Havana are laced with contradiction. A 35,000-seat main stadium with a leaky roof is hastily built while construction projects on the edge of the city stand idle. The athletes are romping in a village of new brick and stucco apartments east of downtown while housing in the center city crumbles. Cyclists ride state-of-the-art bicycles past workers who set garbage ablaze to heat metal pipes they then bend with their bare hands. Food is varied and plentiful for visitors and rationed for residents.

"When I first came here I said, 'OK, this is definitely the low-budget housing for athletes,' " said team handball player Bill Kessler of Franklin Square, N.Y. "Then I walked around on the street, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, these are the condos.' "

A random tour through Havana is a journey into the bizarre. The city is 45 minutes by jet from and four decades behind Miami.

Posters of Che Guevara are sold in a kiosk outside the main cathedral of Old Havana. The cabin cruiser Castro and his 81 revolutionaries used on their journey back from Mexico in 1956 is encased in a glass house and surrounded by tanks, artillery and propeller planes.

Paint peels from nearly every building. Even an attempt to spiff up the grand facades along the oceanfront Malecon appears drab. Day-Glo purples, oranges and pinks dot the landscape, but a closer inspection reveals that only some columns have been painted, while others remain caked with grime.

Want a 1957 Chevy? Or how about a '56 Buick? This is the place to come. Two million people live here, and traffic jams are non-existent because cars are scarce.

The Floridita, the bar-restaurant made famous by Ernest Hemingway and the daiquiri, has been reopened after three years of remodeling. Tourists with dollars can sip $5 daiquiris at the mahogany bar or eat $13 shrimp cocktails at tables topped in orange Formica. They even can see the chair Hemingway once sat in.

A block away, Cubans line up for bread.

Shop till you drop is a way of life. One woman who was waiting for her bread ration said she spends several hours each day trying to find enough food to feed her family.

"Rice you can get every day," she said. "Chicken you can get every nine days."

Food shortages have been exacerbated in recent weeks because of the preparations for the Pan Am Games and the cutoff of Soviet aid. There are estimates that Cuba has poured $100 million into staging the games.

"Things are a lot worse now than they were five years ago," one man said while waiting for a bus. "The Soviets supplied us with 90 percent of our goods. Now, there is nothing. We could talk all day long. I'd love to tell you everything, but it's not worth it."

Shops along San Rafael Street are dimly lit and not air-conditioned. Incredibly bad disco music echoes from loudspeakers.

Ten workers stand in an appliance store, waiting for a customer to purchase one of the 10 television sets in stock. A reel-to-reel tape player sits on a shelf, next to two phonograph players.

"Even if you have the money for the sets, you have to be a model worker in the work force to buy one," a saleswoman said.

Escalators in the department store La Epoca are shut off. There is no need to go the second floor, because there isn't even enough merchandise to fill the first floor.

"The Godfather" just made it into paperback.

There are few outward signs that the Pan Am Games actually have come to town. An occasional banner is draped across a street. A sign fills a window. Souvenir shirts sit in boxes because few people are buying them.

In the Central Park, men gather each day to argue about the country's national game, baseball. Cuban-born Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics is apparently a national hero. So is third baseman Omar Linares, the 23-year-old star of the national team. Who is better, the men are asked. They argue some more.

One man pulls from his wallet a Canseco baseball card that has been laminated. Another man has a 1958 Willie Mays All-Star baseball card, also laminated. They pass the cards to strangers as if they were heirlooms.

The men are asked who will win the Pan Am Games gold medal in baseball, Cuba or the United States? For once, there is no argument.

Together, the men say, "Cuba."

A country waits for games to begin. Bread and circuses for

Castro's Cuba.

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