Sports in Cuba: Baseball, Soccer, and Boxing
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 historical tradition. It pre-dates Castro’s government by a long shot – before the current dictatorship there was a succession of unpopular U.S.-backed leaders, and before that the Spanish grossly exploited Cuba’s resources and native people.
In 2003, things came to a head during Cuba’s Black Spring, when Castro’s government rounded up 75 dissidents and 29 journalists. They were all accused of colluding with the United States, and many of them received jail sentences between 10 and 20 years. Yet despite the risks, representatives from these groups continue to show up at important state-run events.
Oswaldo Payá began the Christian Liberation Movement, which promoted democracy and human rights throughout Cuba. In 2002 his efforts earned Payá the Sakharov Freedom of Thought Prize. He died in a fatal car crash in 2012 – a car crash that many believe Cuban authorities orchestrated.
The Varela Project evolved out of the Christian Liberation Movement. This project seeks to circulate petitions for the Cuban government to introduce democratic processes.
Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) started as a protest movement by women whose husbands were jailed for protesting the Cuban regime. At first they expressed their protest simply by wearing all white when they attended Mass. Now they are one of Cuba’s most prominent protest groups, and regularly gather to protest unjust political imprisonments.
Lost In Time
Due to the Cuba's rigid communist history, the development of the country has been set back. Though conveniences such as Wi-Fi are now available, they are not widespread as is typical of most Western countries. It is still difficult to find access to things in stores due to ongoing trade embargoes. These embargoes are also one of the reasons why Cuban cuisine can be satisfying but bland.
Cuba is surprisingly diverse for an island which is difficult to enter and exit, but much of that can be attributed to the country's earlier history — before the rise of Communism. The country does have religious roots, but one very obvious form of the nation's ongoing oppression is the difficulty citizens face practicing their faith. In Cuba, it is not uncommon to be arrested en route to church.
The spirit of Cuba is decidedly unbreakable, but it is unknown what future awaits the country. All the more reason to book a vacation while you can — it may truly be a once in a lifetime experience.