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CUBA DIARY: Letter from Fidel
by Mike Woitalla, September 5th, 2008 7AM

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Mike Woitalla reports from Havana
Walking down one of Havana's longest streets, the Calle Infanta, I'm approached by man in a worn-out striped polo shirt who asks where I'm from. After I answer he says, in a friendly way, "You must come with me."

We walk past one of the street vendors who refills disposable lighters, then take a right turn toward the University of Havana and enter a stylish cafe.

"This is where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara discussed many important things," says my new tour guide, Victor.

He puts his forearm next to mine and says, "We are different colors, but it doesn't matter. That was one of the things they talked about when they sat right here," pointing to a table.

I smile back, and ask him, "Is it true that Raul Castro played soccer? It's something I read on the Internet."

Victor says he doesn't know. He thinks Raul played basketball, and adds that Fidel was an excellent athlete. Legend has it that Fidel struck out Tommy Lasorda in an exhibition game attended by scouts from the Washington Senators but wasn't offered a contract.

Last February, Raul Castro, 77, took over the presidency from his older brother Fidel, 82.

Fidel Castro is ailing but his views are relayed to the Cuban people through Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

The newspaper is named after the yacht that on Nov. 25, 1956, carried 82 revolutionaries, including the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, from Mexico, where they had been plotting, to Cuba. The yacht got its name from its original owner, who was honoring his grandmother.

In an August issue of Granma, Fidel Castro offered his reflections on the 2008 Olympic Games.

Although Cuba, a nation of only 11 million, won 24 medals, including two golds, the performance was a disappointment compared to past Olympic efforts. At Athens 2004, the Cubans won nine gold medals and in 1992 Cuba was fifth in gold-medal wins with 14.

Cuba's 2008 Olympic performance was marred by Angel Valodia Matos, who won a Tae Kwon Do gold medal in 2000. In Beijing, Valodia Matos kicked referee Chakir Chelbat in the head.

In Castro's Granma editorials, he defended Valodia, pointing out that his mother died while he was in China and that he was "taken aback by a decision that struck him as utterly unfair ... he couldn't hold back any longer."

Castro blamed semifinal losses by Cuban boxers on bribed judges and referees. And he admonished the international press for not pointing out certain things about Cuba, such as, "It is the only country where professional sport is not practiced. ... The only country economically blockaded by the most powerful and richest empire that ever existed."

He accused other nations of stealing Cuba's athletes. Three gold-medal winning boxers defected while in training camp in Venezuela in 2006 and went professional with a German promoter.

Castro hailed Cuba's silver medalist baseball team for its two wins over the USA, "the country that invented the sport," and then went on to call for a review of Cuba's sports programs and an introduction of "new ideas, concepts and knowledge."

There was no mention of soccer, because Cuba didn't qualify for the Olympics, a U-23 tournament, although it looked to have a good chance after opening the qualifying tournament with a 1-1 tie against host USA in Florida last March. After the game, seven Cuban players defected. Playing with 10 men, Cuba fell, 2-0, to Honduras.

On Saturday, Cuba's full national team hosts the USA in World Cup qualifying. Fidel Castro is not expected to attend, but rumor has it that Raul will be at the Pedro Marrero Stadium.



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