It's the championship series of the 2010-11 Cuban baseball season, and beside the Industriales -- the Havana-based team everybody compares to the Yankees -- I might be the only person in Santa Clara's stadium not wearing orange.
Our government-mandated tour guide lied to get us in here. He told the security guards we were Canadian baseball tourists and that we'd only stay an inning. To be fair, we lied to get in here, too: Our visas say we are on a religious mission, but the real purpose of our trip was cramming the maximum legal amount of medicine into our suitcases and delivering it to Havana's only privately owned pharmacy. These lies work because in Cuba, being good at your job doesn't make you any less poor.
The first thing that's different about this baseball stadium from every other baseball stadium I've been to in my life is the crowd. I'm used to the dull roar of a baseball game, politely loud at the appropriate moments. This crowd is loud non-stop. There are noisemakers and horns and drums and scores of other stuff you'd get thrown out of an American baseball stadium for tooting. The Industriales' mascot is a lion, so a man is walking around the stadium with an enormous stuffed lion strung up by a noose. Nobody thinks this is uncalled for.
The subtler thing is that there are no ads. On the billboards past the outfield wall where you'd normally see CHEVROLET, there are instead patriotic mottos. VENCEREMOS -- "We will win." HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE -- "Toward victory always," a catchphrase of Che Guevara, who is buried a few miles from here.
The words are about winning, but they're not talking about the baseball team. Technically, there are no ads in this baseball stadium, but of course, these are actually ads. They're ads for the idea that Cuba is actively in revolution, even though the government they were revolting against was overthrown in the 1960s. They're ads for the idea that Cuba will win this revolution.
Besides all that, it's a baseball game. President Obama is in Cuba right now, making him the first American president to visit the island since the 1920s, and it makes sense that he is attending a baseball game. Obama is hoping to normalize relations with a country the United States has shut off since Fidel Castro took over in 1959, and baseball is a good place to start.
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Virtually everything about my life is different from the life of an average Cuban. I can eat the food I want, say what I want to say in public, use a computer whenever I want and live where I want to live. Cubans are rationed food, their public words are monitored, their Internet access is virtually nonexistent and they generally live in the same apartment for the entirety of their lives.
But when I wore a Yankees shirt around Havana, I couldn't go a block without somebody wanting to talk about baseball. It was like wearing a giant light bulb at a moth colony. Our lives were different in every way, but we could talk about Kendrys Morales. And those conversations about baseball turned into conversations about, you know, life.
My life is different from theirs because of pure chance. My grandparents were lucky enough to get a visa to leave the country to visit a sick relative in New York in 1960. They were supposed to go back a few days later, but instead grabbed my 3-year-old dad and my baby uncle and left everything else behind. They never went back, not even to visit.
Because of their actions, I see Cuba as a visitor, not a resident. To my eyes, it's the most beautiful place I have ever been. It's a time capsule: the cars from the 1950s, the buildings from the 1920s. The waves crash high over Havana's seawall, enveloping the city in a salty mist. It gives the cityscape a filter, like you're living inside of a picture from a year you weren't alive to experience.
Soon, things will change. Obama's trip is a sign of that. The footholds of capitalism are already forming -- people are allowed to own private businesses for the first time in decades, and you see plenty of iPhones.
I've seen people lament the oncoming onslaught of Americanized culture in Cuba. Havana's vintage beauty will be diminished if there's a McDonald's on the Malecon.
But each thing that appears beautiful to an onlooker is a sign of active suffering for the people who exist there. People live their lives in these dilapidated buildings. They struggle to source makeshift replacement parts for cars that were supposed to stop working two generations ago. A time capsule is a neat thing to poke your head into. Cubans live in one full-time with little hope of escape.
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Communism is a bad ideology. It hypothetically makes everybody equal, and that's an incredible ideal. In reality, the only reason everybody is equal is because literally everybody is poor. Everybody gets the same food rations, enough to keep you from starving, but never enough to keep you from being hungry. Regular workers make $20 a month, high-status workers like doctors and lawyers might make $30.
Once upon a time, it made sense for America to take a stand against Cuba. Communism was the biggest threat to the free world, and Cuba was communism's stronghold just a few miles from our shores.
I understand why many want to continue isolating Cuba. My grandmother is probably one of them. The Castro regime is a horrible dictatorship that caused her to abandon the life she had in the country she was born. And she was one of the lucky ones.
Trading with Cuba hypothetically supports that regime. To Cubans in America, Obama's visit to Cuba legitimizes the regime that ruined millions of lives.
I understand their viewpoint, but after meeting Cubans, I can't support continuing to isolate Cuba. American money would drastically improve the quality of lives of millions of people. I don't care that it will ruin the scenery, and I don't care that it's "letting the Castros win," or whatever. The Castros aren't winning. Fidel is dying, and so is the system he put into place. America won its ideological war. What matters to me is making life less crappy for the people of Cuba. That's a thing we can accomplish.
Baseball can be the thing that reminds American human beings that Cuban human beings are also human beings. And the sooner we remember that, the sooner we can stop punishing them for being born under the wrong regime.
President Obama is at a baseball game in Cuba, and that means our relationship with Cuba is stronger than it has been in decades. But there are still people whose lives can be changed for the better. Hopefully baseball can help that happen.