With world watching, security is tightened in Cuba Pan Am notebook

August 05, 1991|By Mimi Whitefield | Mimi Whitefield,Knight-Ridder

HAVANA -- The Cubans are trying very hard to put their best foot forward during the Pan American Games. They are well aware that with hundreds of foreign journalists in town, any miscues will become instant news.

Police presence in areas tourists frequent and around games sites is heavy, and crowd control is carefully orchestrated.

There is no admission charge for Cubans who want to attend the competitions, and popular events like Saturday's U.S.-Cuba basketball game are drawing overflow crowds.

Although Havana's Sports City coliseum, where the U.S. team beat Cuba 92-88, was packed to the rafters -- with many people unable to get inside bunched at the entrances listening to the game on the radio -- police seemed adept at moving spectators in and out fairly quickly.

Though many Cubans question whether the country should have gone ahead with the Games given the island's current economic crisis, people are starting to get caught up in the competitions.

"The Pan Ams are always a very attractive sporting event. I asked for my vacation now so I can go to all the games," said Vicente Vallejo, a Cuban doctor who was in the Sports City audience. "The U.S.-Cuba game was great, very emotional with only four points difference. I thought that Cuba would lose by at least 10 points. The U.S. team is young, but they were superior."

Meanwhile, those who had hoped to use the Pan Ams as a showcase for their displeasure with the regime haven't got very far. The clamps are down tight.

Dissidents say they have been visited and questioned by state security agents in recent weeks, and that there have been a number of political detentions.

* AIRPORT GROUNDINGS: So far there have been no major snafus in bringing off the Games. However, foreign journalists arriving hot and sweaty from the airport report "trips from hell." They complain of mixups about their credentials, luggage going to the wrong terminal, and luggage meant for Havana on the verge of being sent to Santiago, the Pan Am co-host city -- inconveniences that have in some cases delayed them at the airport for hours.

Meanwhile, the Hotel Habana Libre -- press headquarters for the Games and never a very intimate place -- has taken on the appearance of the train station of the Americas.

U.S. journalists share "mojito" cocktails with their Cuban counterparts in the lobby bar while a band plays dance numbers popular in the 1950s; Mexican tourists laden with bags full of purchases from the "diplo-tiendas" (dollar stores) stride through the lobby, and the elevators are packed with Americans who stand out because of their size, money and the loud shorts and baseball caps that many wear.

Except at the beach or if they're under 18, most Cuban men wouldn't be caught dead in shorts.

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