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CUBA DIARY: What soccer game?
by Mike Woitalla, September 4th, 2008 6:45AM

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Mike Woitalla reports from Havana

When you tell a Cuban that you're from Estados Unidos, they tend to smile and say, "Bienvenido." Mention your home to one of the many European tourists in Havana and they respond with, "So how'd you get in?" That's because it's against U.S. law for Americans visit Cuba -- up to 10 years in prison is the penalty - unless they receive special permission.

On Saturday, Cuba hosts the USA in a World Cup qualifying game. I'm here legally because the U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizes some travel to Cuba by Americans. Among those eligible to receive an OFAC license are journalists.

The embargo has been in place for more than 45 years. The "basic goal of the sanctions is to isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of U.S. dollars," explains the OFAC.

From takeoff to landing, the 20-seat propeller plane takes an hour to reach Havana from Miami. One of the first things you see leaving the Havana airport are giant images of President George W. Bush painted on street-side walls with very unflattering captions.

There are other murals and billboards hailing the revolution of nearly 50 years ago and encouraging national unity. But there is no product advertising anywhere.

Palm trees line the streets, which are crowded with a wide array of vehicles. American cars from the 1950s -- Chevys, Buicks, Fords - cruise alongside compact cars, modern buses imported from China and three-wheeled taxis, and there are even horse-drawn wagons.

In the hotel lobby of the Parque Central in Old Havana, the television is tuned to CNN, with coverage of the Republican Convention. Later in the evening, security guard Gustavo switches to ESPN for the Red Sox-Cleveland game.

Gustavo, although a fervid baseball fan, is one of the few Cubans I've met so far who is aware and interested in Saturday's World Cup qualifying game.

"Landon Donovan is good," says Gustavo, who dons a small Real Madrid pin.

Otherwise, a survey of Havana residents reveals that so far Saturday's game hasn't created much of a buzz.

Pedro, a giant who looks like an NFL linebacker, invites Calle Obispo pedestrians into the Café de Paris by announcing, "We have the best Mojitos in Havana." It's a claim made by many bars in Havana but one isn't inclined to doubt Pedro. The mojitos cost 4 pesos -- $4.40 in U.S. dollars - and Pedro takes a break from courting customers to play maracas and dance along with the band.

Then Pedro - like several boys in the street, a policeman, a grocery store clerk and a taxi driver - says he had no idea that the USA was playing Cuba in a soccer game.

"Cubans don't play futbol," says Pedro as he swings an imaginary bat and says, "We play baseball."

When Cuba lost, 3-1, to Trinidad & Tobago two weeks ago, only 4,000 attended the game in Havana. A preliminary World Cup qualifying game drew just 2,000.

But perhaps, because it is against the USA, Saturday's game will rouse the Cubans.



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