Baseball has a special place in Cuban hearts. American sailors brought the game to Cuba in the 1860s, and Fidel Castro’s love of the game has solidified the connection between Cuba and America’s favorite pastime. Central Park in Havana serves as a meeting place for fans who want to discuss the finer points of the game. Havana’s Pedro Marrero baseball stadium can hold an audience of 30,000.
But the prominence of the game in Cuban culture has started to change. In 2012 Raúl Castro’s government made it possible for Cubans with passports to leave the island. Passports are quite expensive in Cuba, so this didn’t mean much for the average Cuban. Baseball players, however, leaped at the opportunity to become highly paid athletes in the United States. After a mass exodus of Cuban baseball players, Cubans have had less reason to take an interest in the sport.
Soccer has stepped up to fill in the gap. This sport requires less equipment than baseball, and is therefore a cheaper game to play. It’s also easier for children to play soccer in the streets, without having to find the space to set up a baseball diamond.
But Cuba has an equally hard time holding onto its soccer players. When the soccer team travels to the U.S. to compete, generally a few players stay behind.
Boxing has also become an increasingly popular sport in Cuba. Roniel Iglesias, Yasnier Toledo, and Joahnys Argilagos all won gold medals in a 2015 Pan American boxing competition held in Venezuela.
Chess in the Park
Cubans have a strong affinity for chess. In 2004, the largest chess competition ever recorded took place in Santa Clara. It consisted of 13,000 competitors. You’ll see Cubans gathered at folding tables in parks for games of intensely competitive chess (and sometimes checkers).
Some of the most renowned chess players have come from Cuba. Cuban chess player José Raúl Capablanca was a world champion in the 1920s, and is regarded as one of the greatest chess players ever to have lived. Fidel Castro has a reputation as a skilled chess player, and is rumored to have played a game against chess legend Bobby Fisher.
Drinking Homemade Cocktails
For many Cubans, alcohol is too pricy to enjoy on a regular basis. So instead of purchasing liquor, many Cubans rely on their own recipes. These drinks include aguardiente, a type of strong liquor made from sugar. You will see these unlabeled bottles of homemade concoctions passed around at outdoor festivals, lubricating revelers, dancers, and musicians long into the night. But beware – you may find that your palette is not up to the challenge.
Protests and Political Dissidence
Dissidence is probably Cuba’s oldest tradition. It pre-dates Castro’s government by a long shot – before the current government there was a succession of unpopular U.S.-backed leaders, and before that the Spanish grossly exploited Cuba’s resources and native people.