Visiting Cuba as a tourist, even if you venture off the beaten path and experience something closer to the “real Cuba” can cloud your perspective. Cubans are a people so immensely proud that will give you the shirt off their back. This can sway your perception of the overall way of life and political climate.
One of the last bastions of communism paints a facade of being deceptively modern and industrialized. Life expectancy is similar to that in North America. News of medical breakthroughs on the horizon seem contradictory to what we envision of a repressive regime. Ultimately all things flow through and to the top in Cuba. This means technically no one goes without but the opportunity to pull ones self up is rare.
The Cuban Governments idea of a free market increasingly dissuades Cubans from getting involved in agriculture as a profession. It allows farmers to sell 10% of their yield to entities other than the government. If they over produce and are caught selling their cheese or milk they will be fined substantially.
Definitive statistics on wages aren’t made readily available. Estimates are that most Cubans get the equivalent of $20 us a month. Some specialized professions make more. For instance a skilled surgeon might get $30 or other perks such as nicer living arrangements. All animals are created equal, except some are more equal than others. Speculation is that players in the National Series make between the $20 and a relative robust $300. Some get the big perk of a new Hyundai Accent or at least a newer compact foreign car.
Even though their baseball players live a comparatively lush life, it is hard not to dream of North America. Playing in Major League Baseball and the potential millions of dollars. Which feels equivalent to the GDP of certain provinces in the country. The chance to make huge money facing the best baseball players in the world still does not make it an easy decision. Players have to leave their life and family. Many never have the chance to return. Many more had to deal with shady human smugglers to even make the journey a reality.
In 2015 U.S. President Obama announced that diplomatic ties would be restored for the first time since 1959. It set off immense speculation as to what this would mean for Cuba. Common sentiment was to get to Cuba before the americans got in and ruined it. I didn’t share that opinion for many reasons. The first being I feel I have more in common with most Americans than I have differences. The reign of Fidel and Raul Castro has been with an iron fist. But certain forces even capitalism is perhaps one even they can not resist.
The digital revolution is coming, especially in the city of baseball powerhouse Industriales. Cuba for years has had essentially an intranet with limited access to the outside world. Ability to communicate via email amongst those privileged enough to have access within the country has been growing. I have been able to send photos to my contacts in Cuba. But responses, much like their access is spotty and not guaranteed.
The biggest change from visiting Cuba from 2015 to 2016 was not the influx of Americans. Anecdotally I heard more english and met more Americans in Havana during post 2015 trips. The advent of Wifi or WEEFEE hot spots is the grandest difference. Select squares in Havana and certain hotels allow Cubans to get unfettered internet access through their smart phones. Smart phone adaptation has been rapid. A new common sight is entire blocks of Cubans getting in touch with the outside world via their new digital devices.
Selfishly I find some of Cuba’s lustre wears off when you see this previously unconnected tourist paradise falling prey to the digital zombie apocalypse. People spending all their time with their face buried in their phones. Often at the expense of true human interaction. But on the other hand, if you are reading this, it is likely on a smart phone or at the least a tablet or laptop, so please disregard my hypocrisy.
I first started visiting Cuba in 2012. It was at a perfect time to view a society going through large changes. My first baseball experience in Cienfuegos I saw the local legend Jose “Pito” Abreu play.
I was impressed by his presence at the plate and his shear size. It propelled me to do some more research. I found he was likely close to the end of his prospect status at 28 years old. I even joked, it’s now or never for this guy.
Within months (note I had no hand in his defection) he was making his way stateside. He put up incredible numbers for the White Sox on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honours. He would also be named the 2020 American League MVP. On this trip I was also advised to keep an eye on another former Elefante in Yasiel Puig. Puig would electrify the baseball world once he made his debut with the Dodgers but has had an up and down career since.
This seemed to tip off an exodus. This proved great for the players. They get to play in the best league in the world and get paid very well. It also proved to be a drain on the Cuban League. Subsequent trips, at least by the eye test seemed to show a drop off in premiere talent. But every time I would return home and hear of the next player signing with the majors. I could say, wow I saw that guy before he left. This continued when I saw Yulieski Gurriel play in January of 2016.
The Gourriels are the first family of Cuban baseball. The Father Lourdes Sr. is a godfather of the Cuban program. Yuniesky is the eldest son and had a long Cuban National Series career. Yunito the youngest son is perhaps the true prospect due to his young age and exciting skillset. Yulieski is thought the best Cuban player of his generation. He was in his early 30’s when I saw him play in Havana. An age where players start to decline. Yulieski hit a walk off home run in one of the games. Yuli and Yunito would walk away from Cuba that march and to the Astros and Blue Jays respectively.
Chatter of an eventual agreement between Cuba and MLB to send players to the states legally persisted. The outline of a deal was released in 2018. It never came to fruition though as the Trump administration struck the deal down. This left the 34 players outlined as being eligible to sign under this deal in limbo. Many of these players have made their way to America anyway.
Every day seems to bring a new development. Estadio LatinoAmericano in Havana, the Yankee Stadium of Cuba was in a rustic state of repair both times when I was visiting Cuba early on. The left field roof and thus third base seating section closed for over a year.
LatinoAmericano was suddenly closed for repairs. Industriales the baseball team played their games in an adjacent province. Was this a smoke screen to quell the talk of the most recent defections? Was it the reality of construction supplies and their availability in Cuba?
President Obama would be visiting Cuba in March. The Tampa Bay Rays would be playing the Cuban National team as part of this tour. A logical explanation but still the other two theories were possible. Trying to make sense of the decision making process in Cuba is as predictable as betting on baseball games. That March 22nd, 2016 game would make for a great photo op with Obama and Raul Castro viewing the game together. However five years later, little progress between the nations has been made.
Major League Baseball and the Cuban baseball federation continue to work together to revive the 2018 agreement. This deal could also and put support into the Cuban baseball infrastructure. Personally, I think the process to reaching an agreement will be a roller coaster ride. All money flow begins and ends with the regime. But perhaps more than anything the growing social pressures (internet access, brain drain/talent leaving) will force their hand. And force the realization you can’t stop this tide. You can only hope to salvage some of the shells that wash up on shore and prey that you find a pearl.