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Volleyball in complicated Cuba: Disappearing in a cloud of smoke

VARADERO, Cuba — We do not know what to expect when we arrive at 6203 Segunda Avenida in downtown Varadero, Cuba. We do know that this is the address of our Airbnb, and that we have a room here. Maybe we have a bathroom. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we’re in the main house, where our host lives, and where the venue for the NORCECA we’re competing in is roughly five-minute walk down the beach. Maybe we’re in our own little unit.

When we knock on the gate of the sprawling estate, which sits on two lots on the corner of a downtown street lined with a café, a few dark restaurants, a grocery store that does not accept cash or American credit cards and a Puma outlet, we are greeted by a man who could easily be the starter at your local golf course. He has a balding head and a round belly familiar to anyone with grandparents who have long ago given up on dreams of vanity. He is amicable and friendly.

His name is Ignacio.

His English is some of the best we will find on this island, although it is still a bit broken. He profusely apologizes, unnecessarily, for his lack of fluency, and he laughs and pokes fun at himself. The self-deprecation is immediately endearing, melting any reservations we may have had about this place. He shows us our room, with a queen bed and a twin and a bathroom with a big shower. It has air conditioning and a fridge. It is perfect.

We haven’t eaten a meal since leaving the Miami airport that afternoon, and although the options are plenty in downtown Varadero, we’ll still take a local’s recommendation.

Ignacio points us to a restaurant one block to the right, and then a block to the right of that. It is not the restaurant with the live music and dancers, the one in which tourists gather round, clapping and drinking mojitos and smoking Cuban cigars. That restaurant, like most everything in this country, is owned and operated by the government.

“This one,” Igancio says in his low and gravelly voice, “is private. Not owned by the government.”

It seems like an endorsement.

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Our walk to the courts in Varadero/Travis Mewhirter photo

‘All you do is play volleyball, train.’

Cuba is an impossibly complicated place, with a checkered history that has been perpetually filled with either war or strife or both. It was given to the United States as a protectorate in a strange deal in the wake of the Spanish-American war in the late 1800s. Four years later, it became its own republic.

It would take just four years for the first revolt, an armed dispute over shady elections in which the rebels won and a precedent of political and social corruption was set. In his book, Cuba: Order and Revolution, Jorge Dominguez describes the period from 1933 to 1937 — the four years after Sergeant Fulgencio Batista’s overthrow of the government, an event known as the Sergeant’s Revolt — as a time of “virtually unremitting social and political warfare.” There were three presidents in two years. A new constitution was adopted. The power of the government expanded, revoking the right to strike, among other political liberties. The chasm between the rich and the poor expanded.

Long involved in Cuban affairs, the United States supported a fiery young leader by the name of Fidel Castro in his attempt to overthrow Batista. The Americans saw it as a movement that could potentially bring democracy to Latin America. It would take a year for the U.S. to realize just how wrong it had been. President Eisenhower hatched an ill-fated and poorly executed, if not well-intentioned, plan to arm and train a group of 1,400 Cuban refugees to overthrow Castro’s government. Carried out in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs Invasion became an abject disaster. The refugees surrendered in three days.

Cuba’s relations with the United States have been, to put it lightly, tense ever since.

Americans are still, technically speaking, not allowed to visit Cuba. Not on the grounds of tourism, anyway. In Havana, I’ll meet a woman from Minnesota who is here on humanitarian work, one of the few acceptable purposes to visit this island. Tim Brewster and I, as well as Hagen Smith and Mike Boag, Allie Wheeler and Iya Lindahl, are here on business, competing in this NORCECA tournament, another acceptable purpose. But with the tension and the violence that has dominated the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Cuba for more than a century, further exacerbated by sanctions from President Trump that were sustained by President Biden, it is fair to wonder how we’ll be received.

Two weeks before, in Aguascalientes, Mexico, we got a brief glimpse of this. Cuba’s No. 1 team of Jorge Alayo and Noslen Diaz would win gold there, defeating Bill Kolinske and Evan Cory in the final. They were warm and friendly, if not shy, limited by the language barrier. It took exactly one match for them to win over the Mexican crowd, beckoning them to grow louder, then louder still, with every swing, every block, every shift of momentum. The crowd loved them. They loved the crowd.

It was a noteworthy display of emotion from the Cubans. When Diaz’s older brother, Nivaldo, and Sergio Gonzalez made a Cinderella run through the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, winning a stacked pool before advancing to the quarterfinals, they were relatively placid. Emotions did not pour out of them, as they did with Alayo and Noslen Diaz in Aguascalientes. They were quiet, seemingly shrugging off an enormous success on an enormous stage.

“You’d look like that, too,” one athlete said, “if you kept winning but the government kept all of your money.”

Perhaps it is the enthusiasm of youth. Never before had some of the competitors in Aguascalientes seen a pair of Cuban players as outwardly emotional as 19-year-old Nolsen Diaz and 20-year-old Alayo. Many in Cuba play not because they love the sport, but because they are gifted, either genetically or physically. That gift will get them enrolled into the Cuban School of Volleyball, which is on the outskirts of Havana, about 15 minutes from the airport.

“You don’t apply for it. They pretty much track you when you’re a kid,” said Angel Dache, who was raised in Cuba and now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with one AVP main draw to his name. As soon as Dache was born, the Cuban government knew he’d be a potential candidate for the school. His father played briefly on the Cuban National Team until, as Dache says, “alcohol got the best of him.” It hasn’t with Dache. He enrolled in the school when he was 10, and “for five years in a row, you say bye to your family and every week you go to school, some weekends you see your family if you’ve earned time, but if you don’t, you gotta stay in school. All you do is play volleyball, train.”

This isn’t just volleyball, either. Similar academy-style institutions exist for boxing and baseball in this sports-crazed country.

“They follow these kids, if their parents played the sport, it’s just in their DNA,” Dache said. “They get enough kids for them to experiment, and they do testing at the school and all these things. The first three years, you’re going through testing. It’s not even volleyball-related. It’s very minimum volleyball. They teach you how to jump, they teach you how to pass, and every year, they cut certain people if you didn’t make one of the tests.”

Diaz and Alayo have passed every test and then some. Complicated as Cuba’s treatment of its own citizens may be, the school has undoubtedly produced a pair of superbly talented volleyball players, something the Mexican fans appreciate. They cheer for the Cubans as if they are one of their own. They love Diaz and Alayo. It is hard not to.

It is, in fact, hard not to love every Cuban you meet.

NORCECA medal stand in Varadero, Cuba. Mewhirter and Brewster are on the left/NORCECA photo

‘They don’t know what’s out there’

The first Cuban we are introduced to is not Ignacio. It is a cab driver named Jonathan, who speaks at such an alarming speed it’s a legitimate wonder how people can ever understand a word that’s spoken. That, we quickly learn, is a Cuban trait: “Here,” Jonathan says, in his rollicking, spitfire manner of speech, “we speak fast.”

It’s a blur of language, slowed only when Jonathan chooses to speak in a halting English that is far better than he gives himself credit for. We drive this way for 90 minutes or so, Jonathan either flying through Spanish conversations on his phone or pointing out various landmarks to us in English — here is a refinery, that direction is the United States, don’t swim on this side of the island — until we reach a toll booth.

“Welcome,” Jonathan says as he pays the booth and we cross into Varadero, “to our island.”

This strikes me, that he’d distinguish Varadero from Havana and Santa Cruz and Matanzas. Maybe this is intentional. Maybe not. But when we cross into Varadero, it does, indeed, seem as if we’ve crossed into a different country. The landscape is not as wild. The palm trees are perfectly groomed, lined in an orderly formation along the highway. The streets, once filled with potholes, are well-paved with white, dotted lines in the middle. No longer do we see the horses and carriages that popped up every few miles through the first 90 minutes of the ride, a method of transportation that began out of necessity in the 90s, when the Soviet Union dissolved and Cuba was suddenly bereft of its most powerful ally.

The Special Period, that span of time is called, from roughly 1991 to 2000. Its devastating impacts are still being felt in much of Cuba today, decades later. So overly dependent were the Cubans on Soviet gasoline, diesel and petroleum that, when the USSR dissolved in 1991, it necessitated the reintroduction of alternate forms of transportation, namely horses. But this also paralyzed the agricultural industry, which required tractors, combines, and harvesters — they all ran on petroleum, which was now in scant supply. The average calorie consumption of a Cuban citizen plummeted from an estimated 3,052 calories per day to less than 2,000; the death rate among the elderly shot up 20 percent. Cuba’s GDP sank 35 percent, and its imports and exports shrank by an astonishing 80 percent.

In Varadero, there are still horses and buggies, yes, but these are touristy gimmicks, not unlike the type you’ll see in New Orleans. The cars, however, remain the same, anachronisms from another time. We pass, for example, a 1940 Chevy, which would be an antique worth fortunes in the United States but is as common here is a Honda Civic or Toyota Camry is in America. Later in the week, we will pass a Hyundai, and our driver, William, reacts as if it’s a Maserati which, in Cuba, it sort of is.

The buildings, the restaurants, the people — all tourists now, in flowing, summery dresses — are well-groomed and beautiful. It feels as if we’ve entered a movie set, where the instructions would be to build a place that would look like Cuba, if Cuba were perfect. We get a sense that Varadero is a wondrous facade, an entirely different world from that of the previous 200-plus kilometers we covered in the cab.

It is a genius little world built by the government.

It quickly becomes impossible to discern what is real and what is not.

“It probably is (fake),” says Dache, who once took his mom to an all-inclusive resort in Varadero, similar to the one in which we will stay throughout the week.

It was the first time Dache’s mother had ever stayed in a hotel, the first time she had as much food as she could eat. The first time she witnessed the abundance that those outside of Cuba experience on a daily basis.

“It was the highlight of my life,” he says. “I’d never seen someone so happy with the idea that you can eat as much as you can. It’s priceless. They don’t know what’s out there.”

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Iya Lindahl, Tim Brewster and Allie Wheeler chat during a Cuban sunset/Travis Mewhirter photo

‘There is no hope here’

It is 8 p.m. on our second night in Varadero, and Allie Wheeler, Iya Lindahl, Tim Brewster and I watch a blood-orange moon melt into the Atlantic Ocean. From here, on this beach chair, sitting with friends, swapping stories, chatting life, it is easy to see why this is such a popular tourist destination for many, especially French-Canadians, who travel here in droves.

The beauty of this place simply cannot be overstated.

The water is so deliciously blue and clear and warm that to describe it as anything less than perfect would fail to do it justice. The breeze is warm and humid and lovely. But when you know the history of this country, when you see the clear divide between the real Cuba, that through which we drove in Havana and Santa Cruz and Matanzas, and this Cuba, the tourist destination that feels more like Disneyland, a Cuban Epcot, with its perfect cobblestone streets and toney downtown and live music and dances and photo ops, there is something that is undeniably off.

Everyone, from the cab drivers to the waiters and waitresses, wants Euros or American dollars. The secondary market to exchange your cash reigns supreme here. Had we exchanged our Euros at the airport, we’d have gotten 25 Cuban pesos per Euro. Jonathan offered us a rate of 50 to 1. A waiter named Moses chides us, tells us he’d have given us 100 to 1.

Why?

So inflated has the Cuban peso become that it is virtually worthless even here. It is a currency that is hardly accepted within the bounds of its own country. Most grocery stores here will not take the peso, only Euro or some other foreign, more reliable, currency, such as the American dollar.

This is what makes Euros and American dollars so valuable, and the exchange rate so fluid: Everywhere you go, in any cab or store, the rate will be different. On our last night here, a rooftop restaurant in Havana will exchange Euros at 100 to 1 — four times more expensive than the bank. Jonathan, our first cab driver, gives us 50 to 1, as does a taco restaurant in Varadero. It is bizarre.

But if the peso is nearly worthless inside the country, it is entirely useless outside of it. It is accepted nowhere. When the Cuban government trades with other countries, it does so in Euros or dollars — but pays its citizens, almost all of whom are employed by the state in some capacity, in pesos.

When we ask Jonathan if he has ever left the country, he laughs and shakes his head no.

“Muy dificil,” he said. And expensive. The average wage in Cuba is roughly $100 per month. A passport costs about five months’ worth of wages, much of which must be spent on overpriced food and various other living essentials. Even if you are able to obtain a passport, the Cuban government still needs to approve your visa to leave the country.

It is exceedingly rare that one is granted.

Dache’s father was able to leave the island with a few strokes of luck and a bit of genius, if not strange, scheming. A distant cousin of Dache managed to become a political refugee through the Nicaraguan embassy. Through the embassy, she was able to send a letter to the United States, entering a type of lottery system “that every year they would select a group of people out of a hat almost, just really random,” Dache said. If selected, she would be granted permission to enter America. In 2007, she was selected.

“My dad offered her some money for them to get married just so she could take the whole family, and they kind of got married, even though they’re somewhat related — they’re far cousins — and they faked a marriage and everything, and my dad came first and he just claimed me,” Dache said.

The desire for every Cuban I meet to find a way to leave is palpable. Jonathan wants out. As does William. Alex Diaz, a 30-year-old now living in Miami who qualified for AVP Huntington Beach in 2019, wanted out so bad that, when he was 20, he paid $10,000 to land a job contract in Mexico. That sum should not go unnoticed.

“Salary a month is $20,” Diaz said of his time in Cuba. “A pair of shoes are $100. So imagine.”

The exorbitant cost was worth it to him. He took the contract in Mexico. When he arrived in Tijuana, he simply walked across the border. He was thrown in jail for a day, but “when I prove I was Cuban,” he said, “they let me go.”

“Bro,” he added, “every Cuban wants to leave the country.”

A friend of his made it to the States on Wednesday, escaping to Nicaragua before island-hopping his way to the United States, surreptitiously crossing borders until he arrived in America.

“That,” Diaz says, “is the new way.”

On Sunday afternoon, two hours before our final, I’ll sit down with a 50-year-old referee named Carlos. It took him a day to get to Varadero by bus, and he’d work the tournament for four days, reffing five or six matches a day in the searing heat, getting paid 650 Cuban pesos, which is somewhere between $5-$10 American, depending on the exchange rate you get. Carlos’ grandfather moved to Florida in the late 50s, before Castro’s revolution. When Carlos’ grandfather began the process of getting his father to be able to move, it took four years. It has been eight years since Carlos began his own process to move to Florida, where he could reunite with his family in Tampa. He is unmarried. He has no kids.

“I do not want to bring a child into this country,” he says. “There is no hope here.”

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The most perfect water you’ll ever see /Travis Mewhirter photo

‘They might be happier than people here in the U.S.’

It’s Friday, May 6. We beat Jamaica.

Two hours later, there is an explosion in Havana.

It is received mostly with an air of casual indifference. We hear of the explosion only because a few friends messaged us on Instagram, asking if we are OK. We are fine. Havana is far, and it is impossible to feel anything but safe in this Disney-esque land that is Varadero. The reported explanation for the explosion at the 96-room Hotel Saratoga is a gas leak. Our immediate and collective thought is that we wonder if that’s the real cause. The government controls everything here, including whatever narrative will be spun. The newspaper that reported the incident is Granma, a publication run by the Communist Party.

In ranking countries by their freedom of the press, Reporters Without Borders put Cuba at 173 out of 180. Private ownership of media here is outlawed; only five percent of homes are connected to the internet. Even those that do have an internet connection are still limited in the websites they can browse. The government controls all of the WiFi. Access to outside information is scarce.

The newspapers, magazines, books — all are owned and published by the Communist Party. The bookstore in the Havana Airport was replete with works on Castro, Che Guevara, the evils of Guantanamo Bay and all things American.

It is for this reason that a Cuban volleyball player, a teammate of a friend of mine on an indoor team overseas, still reveres Castro. He told a story once, about how two rival gangs were at war in the streets. When Castro stepped out of his car, both gangs simply stopped in reverence. Peace was restored.

The stories here are so twisted and warped by the government-controlled media that there is no way for the Cuban citizens to know what is truth or fiction, real or not, a false narrative or objective reality.

“Growing up, I didn’t have a point of view about Fidel; I thought what everybody thought: He’s great. I have food, I have a house, I don’t have to pay for my house, and that was that,” Dache said. “That’s literally all they said: The U.S. is bad, they punish their students, everything is super polarized.”

Controlled as the narrative may be, there is also no reason to believe that the explosion in Havana is anything but the gas leak it is reported to be. For all of its many faults, Cuba is a surprisingly safe country. Most countries, even those starkly opposed to its oppressive government, leave it mostly alone, save for enforcing trade embargos.

Locally, there is little civil unrest, which can partially be credited to an enormous police force. Article 65 of the Cuban Constitution states that “Defense of the socialist motherland is every Cuban’s greatest honor and highest duty.” Everyone over 16 must serve in that defense, as enrollment into the armed forces or police is mandatory.

The gun-control laws prohibit citizens from owning a weapon, and protests, such as those in 2021, triggered by a shortage of food, medicine, and power that left much of the countryside in a blackout for a week straight, are exceedingly rare. They are put down swiftly and often violently. So large were the protests, in fact, that according to the Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola, President Miguel Diaz-Canel called on Cuba’s revolutionary citizens to take to the streets.

“Vulgar criminals,” Diaz-Canel called those protesters, of whom nearly 1,000 would be arrested, some charged with sedition.

“When the economy go bad, crime go up,” said William, our 35-year-old cab driver who would take us down the coast from Varadero to Havana.

And the economy, which is largely dependent on tourism, is, at the moment, in horrific shape. Like many tourist-based economies, the travel restrictions imposed by governments throughout the pandemic imploded Cuba’s economy. The shortages of food and medicine are severe. Many will go days without being able to fill up their gas tanks. When the gas stations are in supply, some are able to get only diesel. Lines can take up to three hours.

And yet, in spite of all of this, the people in this country are generally, unequivocally happy. On Sunday afternoon, William drives us past his house, a small, one bedroom, two-bath unit that packs in his wife, 5-year-old daughter, mother, father, sister and her boyfriend. He says this with a point of pride.

“Big family,” he says, “big problems.”

And not a single complaint about it.

“The one thing that you shouldn’t be fooled, is that people there are very happy,” Dache says. “Despite all the problems, all the social problems, all of the poverty, they don’t have food, the people there are insanely happy. I can even say they might be happier than people here in the U.S. People are really happy with the little things they have.

“It’s also a safe place to be. You might think these guys don’t have much, they’re going to steal my things. They won’t rob you in the middle of the street at gun point at 3 in the morning or something like that you’ll see in Brazil. My wife was so surprised when we went in 2018. We’d walk around the street at 2 or 3 in the morning, just taking walks because we can, and nobody messes with you. There’s people in the street partying, and it’s a really good life, it’s good vibes.”

All of the problems that plague this country seem so very far away, in our little enclave in Varadero. The food is in limitless supply at the restaurant buffet. The rooms are huge and air-conditioned. It feels wrong, grabbing an extra plate of rice and chicken, when you know that many of citizens in this country must eat by the government’s allotted rations.

There are no rations in Varadero, but an endless buffet at a breathtaking resort, where everything feels perfectly fine, yet nothing feels real.

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A 1940 Chevy cab in Varadero/Travis Mewhirter photo

Disappearing behind a cloud of smoke

In the days leading up to the tournament, I chat frequently with Rafu Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican who played in 50 — 50! — NORCECAs. Twice, he played in Varadero.

“Bro,” he says. “It’s the windiest beach I’ve ever played.”

But on the morning of May 8, there is not a breath of wind. We are playing Hagen Smith and Mike Boag in the semifinals. The temperature shoots above 90 degrees with humidity approaching 100 percent. There isn’t a hint of a cooling breeze.

We win the first set. Take an 8-6 lead in the second. Hagen serves me the first ball I’ve seen in quite a while. I swing long, deep down the seam. A good swing. The right swing. But an error, nonetheless. I’m blocked on the next. Blocked again. I’ve now signed on for getting served for the remainder of this match.

Soon it becomes not a contest of teams, but of who will melt first: Me or Boag. We lose the second, 18-21. I’m winning the race to the bottom. Somehow, we scratch and claw and stall and find a way to win the third, 15-13. Tim wants a hug. It’s his first final. His first international medal. I gladly give it to him, allowing this whippet of a 22-year-old to briefly prop me up. I stumble back through the resort, throwing my stuff in the shade of a tree before disappearing under the cool, perfect water of the pool.

As I sink to the bottom, I think, with the clearheadness of a man who needed nothing more in life than the sweet sound of silence and somewhere out of the sun.

I think of all the people on this resort and this island. I think of the bartender who, seeing me, dripping, red, breathless, allowed me to skip the line, filling my water up. I think of the man who congratulated me on my way to the pool.

“Final?” he asked.

“Final,” I told him.

“Against Cuba?”

“Against Cuba.”

“Good luck.”

And then he smiled a genuine smile and slapped my hand.

I think of the Cuban players, who do not speak a lick of English yet something in their demeanor — their gentle smiles, kind eyes, how they unfailingly nodded good mornings and wished us luck — has given me such a crystalline snapshot into who they are as human beings. I think of all these things, of all of these beautiful people, and I think of the evil that has brought this country to its knees for half a century.

It sears my heart when, sitting at the bottom of this pool, I take inventory of the evil wrought upon this world. It strikes me like an anvil to think of the impossibly large percentage of wrongs that has been manufactured by an impossibly small percentage of bad men.

It is why sports are such a blessing upon this world. They have the power to redeem the messes the rest of the world creates around us. Sports are often stronger than the forces pulling countries and people apart. They allow us to meet the real people in these countries that are so often characterized by the megalomaniacal men in power, and the conflicts they create. When Reid Priddy and the indoor National Team traveled to Iran, at the height of the conflict between the United States and the Middle East, what did they find on their first night there but cases of beer, delivered personally by the Iranian players. An olive branch that spoke volumes about both the Iranians and the wonders of humanity.

When the Soviets pulled out of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, who took them out for beers and a hard night on the town but the very Americans who benefitted so much from their dropping out.

This was the original intent of the Olympic Games: To show the world, for at least a few weeks, that humanity knows no boundaries, either geographical or political or sociological or otherwise. This tournament in Varadero is not the Olympic Games, but it accomplishes the same mission on a pared-down scale.

The men in power here are bad men.

Everyone we meet, who wields no influence over the policies of this country, is good. So very good.

We play Cuba in the final.

We are pounded by Cuba in the final.

Twenty minutes later, we are clinking champagne bottles. Shaking hands. Hugging goodbyes.

I came here to explore this country, to dig into its checkered and complex character as much as I did to play beach volleyball. Tim and I shower off the champagne and sweat. We toss our silver medals into our bags. Drop the key off at Ignacio’s. Rub his dog’s ears and belly. There are men smoking cigars as we put our luggage into the trunk of William’s cab. Before we leave, I take one last look at the hotel, one last glimpse of this strange world, until it disappears behind a cloud of smoke.

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