US-Cuba: not the only game in town
With Castro as the national ump, Cubans play the police game, too.
HAVANA — While 50,000 baseball fans cheered the close encounter between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuban all-stars on Sunday, many Cubans and their government were playing another kind of game.
For the fans, the historic game was a dramatic one of 11 innings, with the Orioles winning 3-2. And for one "fan," President Fidel Castro - who has pitched baseball as well as revolution - there was the thrill of sitting behind the plate and hosting a sports team from the land of his enemy.
You could even get a hot dog - if you had dollars.
But the real game was political and Mr. Castro was the figurative umpire. The game of government control behind the game on the field was noted by both visitors and Cubans.
On Sunday, the by-invitation-only crowd obeyed police instructions and kept inside themselves much of the jubilation of a normally effervescent populace.
It was a clear contrast with Cuba's own World Series game on Friday. The anonymity of that not-by-invitation-only crowd offered Havaneros a way to express publicly a collective frustration - otherwise confided in hushed tones - about a beefed-up police force that routinely checks citizens' identity cards in a recent crackdown on crime.
For their seventh-inning stretch, some 50 police officers fanned across the right-field warning track and on down the first-base line.
"Write that the people protested when the police came out," said a man who before the five-minute delay had been dancing and singing with the rest of the 40,000 plus fans.
"Go away, palestinos," taunted fans in unison, using Havaneros' pejorative for Cubans who enter the capital from the island's east. Havaneros complain many police come from the provinces. Cuban media have reported that two-thirds of new police recruits come from outside Havana.
Havaneros have grown accustomed to the new police presence since Castro's turn-of-the-year vow to crack down on crime. Some citizens favor the increase in police. Officials cite crime as a threat to the tourism fueling Cuba's economy.
The government appears concerned not only for visitors. This spring the legislature strengthened a law against any citizen who supports the US economic embargo. The sentencing of four dissidents for sedition drew international condemnation, even from nations like Canada, with which Cuba enjoys fruitful relationships.
The government has vigorously defended itself against critics, saying the US is trying new ways of fomenting internal dissent as part of its 38-year embargo and political isolation of the island.
But the so-called "group of four" trial didn't have much to do with the day-to-day lives of Cubans. It is the police presence that causes Havaneros to adjust everything from their routes home to their public associations.
Darker-skinned Cubans complain that police stop them more often than their lighter-skinned brethren. The young and the unemployed also protest particular discrimination.
But perhaps most at risk is any Cuban - man or woman - caught with a tourist.
"They question you almost anytime they see you with a foreigner," said a man who sells black-market cigars on the street. Moments later police whistled him over. The result: a few hours in detention and a fine of $7, equivalent to several weeks' salary for a state employee.
In interviews Havaneros expressed little inclination to resist or even express concern. One man, a father of four and a Communist Party member, said the beefed-up presence disgusts him but likened disobedience to standing firm in the pull of a flash flood. A common attitude is "What can one person do?"
A brief and symbolic reprieve came for the thousands, including laborers and students, who were fortunate enough to obtain an invitation to Sunday's Orioles-Cuba exhibition game.
To be sure, security was tight. Animosity of south Florida Cuban-Americans toward Castro is so strong that Orioles starting pitcher Juan Guzman, who lives with his family in Miami, was allowed to stay home for fear of retribution if he went to Cuba.
While police stood cheek by jowl with citizens, they were relatively subdued. Typically officers compel anyone who catches a foul ball to toss back the bounty. Sunday, however, they did not budge when Orioles players showered the crowd with gifts during batting practice.
When the Orioles surrendered the field to Cuban players for pregame warm-ups, the standing crowd cheered. But a policeman's whistle pierced the noise. And, obeying the officer's hand signals, the crowd settled under the midday sun for an afternoon of, by Cuban standards, relatively tame fanaticism.