The Pan American Games in Cuba, 20 Years On

Irina Echarry

This past August marked the twentieth year since the holding of the XI Pan-American Games in Cuba.  The media featured special reports, documentaries and roundtables on the international event as we watched sequences of some of the competitions on our TV screens.  The overall impression given was that everything related to the event was a “great victory of the people.”

It’s true that people made a great (tremendous) effort to satisfy the whims of the country’s leaders (what choice did they have?) even though by that point we were in total meltdown; we’d been hit by the Special Period economic crisis.

Perhaps someone thought it was a good mechanism for distracting people’s attention so they wouldn’t dwell on the increasingly visible pauperization of the economy.  Somewhere I read that the site for the games had already been selected long before, but that there was neither the will nor the desire to cancel that madness.

Admission to the games was free, and before the inauguration 39 trees were planted, one for each participating country.   What is spoken about most in the remembrance is that Cuba was the most outstanding country in these competitions.  It earned gold medals in disciplines that it had never before won, and there was of course the most important aspect for our journalists: Cuba won 10 gold medals more than the USA.

In addition to the effort by the athletes (who knows how pressured they were, without dismissing the chance that they may have been inspired) no one discusses the toll that this whim took on the Cuban people and the economy, and much less on how it impacted on people’s emotional lives.

Sonia, a nearby resident, worked on the construction of the hotel at the Pan-American Villa, like so many people did.  For months she did hours and hours of volunteer labor, getting home late every evening.  She had been called on to perform that task by the party, and she — being an active member — couldn’t let it down.

Her surprise came after the hotel’s inauguration when she found out they would be opening a pharmacy there.  She took her daughter (a pharmacy technician) by the hand and had barely started up the steps of the hotel when a man dressed in a blue suit and looking mean prevented their entry.

Pan American Games 1991. Photo:

Sonia asked for an explanation but the guy said nothing.  She ended up yelling about how she had helped to build the hotel that they were now denying her the right to enter and that she wanted to speak with the manager.  None of this moved the doorman; Sonia simply had to leave, though by that point she was crying and cursing.

But days before, she had seen from a bus (that was full of people, as always) how “for storage” they were burying several mounds of building supplies (sand, concrete setting additives, cement, etc.) in the area between the new stadium and the Monumental Highway.

Time was pressing and it was necessary to inaugurate the work on time to all cost.  If the truck didn’t come to pick up the materials, then the most logical thing to do was to bury them as soon as possible.  No one asked anything.  Now, sarcastically, my neighbor says this discovery will be a great find for archaeologists in the future.

But on television they don’t share anecdotes like those (which assuredly are in the thousands), just like they don’t tell how the grandstands were empty, thereby forcing the organizers to take students out of V.I Lenin Senior High School to fill them, transporting them in buses (the ones we used to call “aspirins”).  Other students boarding in rural high schools only left on passes to their homes, every 15 days, in containers pulled by a diesel trucks.

The recent news coverage was limited to reporting on figures and showing emotional athletes dedicating their awards to those of us who made their participation possible, though the media itself didn’t keep in mind the sacrifice that we had made to achieve this “great victory.”

Every time I see a sports photo, though sometimes I’m unconsciously moved, I don’t stop to think: Well?  So what?  What’s the point of being the fastest or the strongest or the most flexible?  Competition leaves a very big hole when we make it to the top.  It’s the sensation of “now that I’ve arrived I don’t have anything else to do.”

But that’s not the sensation that seizes me when I watch the documentary Los mejores de la historia (The Best in History) or when I hear the words of praise concerning the XI Pan-American Games.  This time the sensation is one of littleness, of insecurity that at any moment they’ll invent another epic sports event and everyone will have to participate, regardless of the cost.

We shouldn’t forget that in 1999 Fidel expressed his desire to hold an Olympic Games in Cuba.  Who says he can’t?  Should they select us as the site at some time, we’ll have to go through that same experience, but aggravated by years of crisis still not overcome.  Yet one could again speak of the “great victory.”

Perhaps I’m being unjust and from those games came a net injection of money that the country needed.  However I’ve looked for this information in different websites, including INDER’s (Cuba’s umbrella sports organization); I’ve read what has been published in the national press; I saw that documentary by Julita Osendi, and I’ve still not been able to discover how much money Cuba spent on those games, nor how much it received in exchange for its sports achievements.

It would be good to know (even if it’s twenty years later) what the sacrifices that were made truly cost in terms of volunteer work hours, mobilizations, marathons and the haste to complete the work for the inauguration while in their homes people had already begun to feel the scarcity of food, and public transportation and even toiletries had almost ceased to exist.

One thought on “The Pan American Games in Cuba, 20 Years On

  • Dear, I don’t know from where is your source of information coming from, could not care less on how they did, I don’t live neither in Cuba nor in the States (no estoy ni con los indios o los cowboys) entiendes??? But I hate lies….in fact all countries that prepare major events like Regionals or Olympic have done loads of dirty tricks but their benefits outweighs those tricks by miles. I was in grade 11 at IPVCE Vladimir I Lenin and we were given the choice of participating at the Closing ceremony totally volunteer no one was force actually it was a lot of fun best times of our lives, in that summer of 1991 half of the e school was at the BTJ the rest of us were rehearsing first at the school premises and in August we moved next to the Panamerican Villa, while we waited for athletic events to finish to start rehearsals, we could go to any other event, mainly cycling and swimming and we did go because it was nice and free they sold lots of nice food and drinks many Cubans as well participated as there were shuttles to all the events. Cubans access to all foreign transited areas was forbidden and that was widely known, your friend and the pharmacy story ???to summarized this article is so pointless …..descubristes el agua fria ????

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