Castillo: Cuba trip for USMNT friendly a personal and professional journey

Old Havana  - el Gran Teatro

My father, his six siblings, and parents didn’t know it at the time – but as they packed up suitcases for a flight in 1959, they were closing up shop on a life to which they would never return. The family had already sent my father, the eldest son, to military school in downtown Miami the year before, in preparation – so he knew some English, and something of the new American city for which they were abandoning Havana.

He carefully stored his treasured Yankees baseball cards and memorabilia in boxes, a Mickey Mantle rookie card among them. The family dog went to a friend’s house for caretaking. Then they boarded a plane – and 58 years of the Cuban regime, a missile crisis, the Cold War, and a decades-long embargo between the US and Cuba ensued.

My grandfather died before ever getting to see his homeland again (and before I was born) – a heart attack, no doubt a combination of genetics, a love for those cliché cigars, and stress. Cancer took my aunt, the second-eldest child, just a few years ago, the motherland a distant memory she would never be able to revisit.

Last Wednesday, I made the reverse trip – only the second in my generation of the family, an extended and confusing constellation of cousins, to get to the island. The occasion? Of course, the USMNT’s historic friendly against Cuba on Friday, Oct. 7, the first such friendly since 1947. Of course, leave it to soccer to ease political tensions and build a humanitarian bridge.

So I left out of the Miami airport, armed with a guidebook and a lifetime’s worth of arcane stories of the motherland. To hear exiles tell it, Cuba was a virtual El Dorado, a place where somehow everyone was rich and had the first and best of it. Anyone from a diaspora will recognize these stories of the “old country,” shrouded in myth and mostly impossible to verify.

Until, then, it does become possible to verify them. And through a trip very much focused on another symbolic step in the US and Cuba’s continuing détente, I discovered what so many do: the truth is always, of course, in a gray area. Just four days on the island felt like a year. The bustling capital city felt simultaneously glamorous and shabby, melancholic and joyous, frustrating and exciting, and devastatingly beautiful.

Here’s what, in my own experience over just a few days, I found to be true. The average person is, indeed, really happy to see or speak to an American – even if you are, like me, a Cuban-American raised in Miami. A hotel staffer, on asking me my family background, once quite literally told me, “Welcome home.”

The revolution looms large in the city’s aesthetics. Nearly every roadside billboard –when it’s not promoting, sometimes, Cuban tourism or products – promotes the revolution, or Fidel Castro. They read, “We’ll always win,” or “58 years of revolution,” or “the embargo is the worst form of genocide,” with a picture of a noose. On another design, a smiling Fidel is superimposed next to a photo of Venezuela current president Nicolas Maduro. Where there aren’t billboards, there are peeling murals and slogans painted on almost every concrete surface; “Viva Cuba libre” ("long live free Cuba") and “socialismo o muerte” (“socialism or death”) are popular ones.

But as much as Fidel looms in the public consciousness, he seems mostly absent from public conversation – certainly, at least, with outsiders. At one point, I rode in an elevator with a Cuban who asked how I liked the country. A few silent seconds then passed. “We need change,” the person added, out of the side of their mouth. “Very soon.”

And yet, the surroundings remain stunning, particularly (and obviously) in the most heavily trafficked tourist areas. The old buildings and cars you see on TV and the movies – they really are there, the cars tooling along in various conditions, sometimes crammed full of six people sharing a taxi ride. Colonial behemoths sit in Old Havana, peeling and crumbling. In relatively middle-class Vedado and Miramar, mid-century modern hotels and movie theaters loom by the ocean or among lush, green landscaping, the light of their old fabulousness still faintly flickering.

Here’s what else is true. For anyone unused to dealing with a non-capitalist, developing country, the bureaucracy could make your toes curl. Like something out of a Marquez novel, lone functionaries at a desk, equipped with nothing but a 1970s phone and some pads of paper, hold court in dark, empty mid-century lobbies lit by one flickering fluorescent bulb in a corner. A permit transaction might involve at least five separate personnel.

Though I had a journalist visa already (about $75), everyone attending the game also had to register with the foreign press office for a press credential – another $60. Staff copied the final paperwork with carbon paper and assembled the final ID, which came on a Havana Club lanyard, with a glue stick.

For some reason, when finally checking out of the hotel, we had to present a doorman another paper ticket before we could actually leave the premises.

Then, of course, there’s the money. For now, the country operates on two currencies – the Cuban peso, for normal folk, and the convertible peso, or CUC, for tourists. (You might wind up with a little of both, though, if you buy something and the store has run out of change in CUC. This happened to me at one government telecomms office; the clerk’s till was an actual metal cash box.)

And the internet? It’s there, if you have the cash. Slowly, wi-fi hotspots are coming to major thoroughfares in Havana – they cost, though, at a rate of about $2 per hour. To get a card, you again have to queue up at a store run by ETECSA, the government’s telecommunications arm.

A “telepunto” is where everyone goes to pay bills, buy phones, top up mobiles, use rental computers or buy cards. The lines to buy are long – but if you’re a tourist, you usually get to skip them. If you want to skip the whole process, though, well, just linger by a hotspot. Within minutes, you’ll get a gray-market reseller proffering his wares under his breath: “Cards, cards, cards -- $3!” At night, every curb around a hotspot is full, with everyone from teens to grandparents checking social media and Facetime-ing with family abroad.

If (relatively) easily accessible internet proves that change is coming to the island, well, here’s another bit, relevant to the US-Cuba friendly. Sure, sure, it’s a baseball country – but increasingly, the people are soccer-crazy.

They even have hot takes about US soccer. At one point, while I waited somewhere for something, staring off into space, I heard a hiss from a man nearby who knew why I was in town. “Oye,” he started. Listen. “Klinsmann?” he said, dramatically shaking his head, and launching into rapid-fire Spanish. “Why does he do the things he does? He never uses the best players!”

Stunned, it took me a second to ask more questions – and when I did, I got an entire blog’s worth of takes. “The best American soccer player of all time? Landon Donovan,” my new friend insisted. “Why doesn’t Klinsmann put him back on the squad?”

Luis Suarez? The best No. 9 on the entire planet. Barcelona is the best team in La Liga, because Ronaldo’s personality is bad, he continued. Juventus is the best in Serie A, and Bayern Munich is also the top in Bundesliga, though Borussia Dortmund was a second favorite. He hoped “the young American kid” – Christian Pulisic! – would play in Friday’s match.

Like pretty much everywhere else in the world, Ronaldo and Messi jerseys dominate the streets; I started to keep a tally from the airport, but lost count. Neymar Jr. came in at third; I also spotted James, Bale and a few others – including a Mario Gotze Germany kit, and even a David Villa NYCFC one in the stands at Friday’s match.

A few factors are contributing to futbol mania, different folks told me around town. The sport has always thrived in the town of Zulueta, about 180 miles from Havana. Its club team, FC Villa Clara, boasts some 14 titles in the Cuban league, as well as producing (relative) stars for the national team.

But it’s spreading outside of Zulueta, through the country’s capital and beyond, largely thanks to the most important things in sports – TV broadcast, and internet access. La Liga games regularly play on Cuban TV, the non-satellite kind available to any Cuban. Anecdotally, it dwarfs English Premier League in popularity, because of the charismatic, outsized personalities involved as much as the shared language.

At the same time, while Cubans go mad for their own national baseball teams, Major League Baseball, not so much – it’s not really shown on TV, perhaps because there are too many defectors involved. Cubans knew about the recent tragic death of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez almost at the time it happened, but the news wasn’t officially reported on the island until days after. The international soccer scene also dovetails neatly into the off months for Cuban baseball, which runs from November to April.

You only need to wander the streets – or into a restaurant – for proof. Working late one night in my hotel, I headed down to the 24-hour basement cafeteria for some food. The cafeteria had once, seemingly, boasted a vague vintage-movies theme. Instead, though, half of it had been turned into something else: a Real Madrid café.

Cubans are famous among Latin Americans for boasting an influence disproportionate to their country’s size. (A running not-really-a-joke is how they like to claim they truly invented the first telephone, via Antonio Meucci.) In soccer, it’s no different – that wall display reads, “Real Madrid started in 1902 with four Cubans.”

We know their football program has a long way to go – anyone who watched the broadcast of the Cuba-US game, live from Estadio Pedro Marrero, saw the field condition. (US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called it “unplayable.”) The broadcasters reminded us repeatedly that the stadium offered no running water. The Cuban national team players arrived at the game and departed on foot, toting their belongings in backpacks.

But soccer there, like everything else in the country, is a work in progress, a nexus of old and new.  It was the same, one morning, when I managed to jog by the house where my father grew up, by matter of extreme coincidence and kismet, just three blocks from my hotel. People inhabited all three floors, but the entryway was dark, the people inside sitting aimlessly in plastic chairs, or lazily looking out from top windows. And yet, just a block away, I could find an ETECSA wi-fi hotspot to send photos to family by WhatsApp.

I won’t add to the chorus of “visit Havana before it’s ruined;” that’s an attitude that damns an island of intelligent, creative people to a clueless outsider’s romanticized vision of noble economic disadvantage. But I will say “visit Havana,” if you can -- and if you won’t embarrassingly wear a fanny pack, complain about the food, or wonder why things don’t run just like they do in North America.

This is not, after all, a city “frozen in time,” as the cliché goes. It’s one whose change – economic, political, cultural, and sporting – continues apace. True, meaningful, person-to-person exchange can only help to accelerate it more.