Anthony Joshua

The Story of The Cuban Boxing Miracle

During a 3-week visit to Cuba in September 1988, research was undertaken into the structure of sport in that country. Individuals who had been involved in Cuban sport or had special knowledge of sport in Cuba were interviewed. Time was spent in the capital, Havana, in Pinar del Rio, a town in the west of Cuba, and in the towns of Santa Spiritus and Trinidad in central Cuba.

Sport in Cuba: Before and After the “Wall” Came Down

Sport was nearly nonexistent in Cuba before the revolution of 1953. Where it did exist, it reflected the rural economy: Horse racing and cockfighting were popular, mainly due to the associated betting. Sport also reflected Cuba’s cultural background. An example is pelota, a traditional Basque courtyard game for two players using slings and a hard ball. The influence of the United States was significant in the establishment of boxing in Cuba, and it became very popular among poorer Cubans in the cities; most of these people were of African descent (Sugden, 1996). Elite sports such as sailing, equestrianism, hunting, tennis, and fencing were popular with “white” Cubans of Spanish descent.

Interestingly, at the turn of the century fencing became a particular strength. In the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, Ramón Fonst won the gold medal in the épée event, and in 1904 he won 2 more gold medals. In the Olympic Games of 1900 and 1904, the Cuban fencing team won 12 medals including 6 golds, the only Olympic medals they would win, however, prior to 1960 (Pickering, 1980).
Before 1959 the Cuban state made little contribution to the development of sport. In 1955 the Batista government would not fund the Cuban team’s attendance at the Pan American Games, and in 1957 and 1958 only 1.75 million pesos, or 0.5% of the total budget, was spent on sport. Sport in Cuba was characterized by limited facilities which were unavailable to most of the population. Most athletic equipment was imported from the United States. Physical education and sport were almost unknown in schools, and there were few qualified physical education teachers. Equality of opportunity in terms of participation did not exist, and participation tended to reflect the gender, racial, and class divisions that characterized Cuban society before 1959. Hence access to sport was almost exclusively restricted to wealthy, white males (Petavino & Pye, 1996).

Castro and Sport

Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, with overwhelming public support. Cuba’s economy was near to collapse, as it had been developed simply to satisfy American tourists, investors, and gamblers, not the Cuban people. Castro’s first act was to seize American assets without compensation. This enraged the United States and triggered economic retribution. Castro found a new partner in the Soviet Union, whose ideological and financial support he accepted. From the Soviet model of government, Castro adapted a centralized, bureaucratic political system, which he imposed on the Cuban people (Sugden, 1996). As a consequence of Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union and its socialist allies, Cuban trade with socialist countries expanded and  with capitalist countries diminished.

The United States severed diplomatic links with Cuba on 3 January 1961. Unhappy at having a socialist country 80 miles south of Florida, President John Kennedy promoted the destabilization of Cuba. The Central Intelligence Agency in the United States recruited 1,400 anti-Castro Cubans who had fled north and gave them military training. On 17 April 1961, they invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Giron, in the south of the island. Aiming to overthrow Castro, they were repulsed, and the invasion galvanized the Cuban people’s support for Castro. A further conflict with the United States ensued on 22 October 1962, when President Kennedy announced that the Pentagon had observed a buildup of military activity in Cuba. Surveillance aircraft had spotted a Soviet convoy heading to Cuba with a cargo of atomic weapons, so the U.S. Navy was mobilized to prevent the missiles reaching Cuba. Confrontation was avoided, however, as Kennedy eventually reached agreement with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier. Kennedy remained concerned about the threat from Cuba, however, so he ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to increase efforts against Cuba and its leader. As a consequence, there were several attempts to assassinate Castro. The United States tightened the economic embargo as well, and trade between the countries was prohibited in an additional attempt to destabilize Cuba.

There was also internal unrest in Cuba during this period, such as a particularly fierce campaign waged in the Escambray Mountains until 1965, when those rebels who remained were defeated. As part of a campaign to deter further uprisings, neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución) were established and are still visible on every street or block of flats. With the help of the Soviet Union, schools were built, clinics were opened, and education and health became widely available to all Cubans. Generally, wealth was diverted from urban to rural areas, and the standard of housing was improved. In comparison with other developing countries, poverty, disease, and illiteracy were virtually eradicated (Calder & Hatchwell, 1996).

Initially, Castro was unclear as to the political direction that Cuba should take (CBS, 1996). However, due to an uncooperative United States, which with its allies imposed a trade embargo, Castro aligned the country towards the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was only too willing to have an ally to the south of the United States at a time when diplomatic relations were strained. In response, the Soviet Union subsidized the Cuban economy, and Cuba established its republic on a socialist model. Sugden (1996) argued that in the early years, Castro’s regime was more “popularist than orthodox communist” (p. 137). According to Sugden, it was

a model which emphasised collective goals over individual freedoms, the dictatorship of the proletariat over democracy, and a command economy over market forces. It was justified by a Marxist-Leninist ideological principle that true communism had to be dragged from the womb of capitalism and, in its infancy, nurtured by a cadre of committed and informed revolutionaries who would seize the apparatus of the state and use it for the benefit of the people until such a stage that the economic and social foundations for genuine collectivism had been securely laid. (p. 136)

The model would have its effect on Cuban sport.  The organization of Cuba’s government “according to notions of Marxist-Leninist democratic centralism, with decision making centralised at the national level” meant a centralized policy-making and funding apparatus “in all areas including sport” (Petavino & Pye, 1996, p. 117). Sport now became a means of displaying antagonism towards the United States and a vehicle for confirming solidarity with the Soviet Union.

The new Cuban system of sport was not necessarily a copy of the Soviet system, but the infrastructure of Cuban sports is unmistakably Soviet. Cuba is a socialist dictatorship and is structured along the lines of the Eastern European countries which collapsed after 1989. Once established in power, Castro reformed all aspects of Cuban society, including sport. In this respect, Cuba and its sporting success became a “shop window” for the display of superior socialist values (Petavino & Pye, 1996; Pickering, 1980).

INDER: Marxist Cuba’s Sport Ministry

The body responsible today for the organization of sport in Cuba is the Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Física y Recreación (INDER), which was established in February 1961, 2 years after Castro’s military victory. INDER built upon the work begun by the Ministry of Education, army, and General Sports Council. In effect, INDER became the ministry of sport and was bound up with central government and reflected its views (BBC, 1977). For Coghlan (1986), the system INDER adopted is the key to bringing mass sport and physical education and high-level performance to developing countries, and even some developed countries. (John Coghlan was deputy director of the Sports Council and made numerous ministerial visits to Cuba. He was commissioned by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, to write about ways to reduce sport and physical education disparities between developed and developing countries.) For others, the INDER system is too governmental, but while this may be a valid criticism, there is no doubt that sport prospers because government backing is forthcoming. In democracies, a centralized system will always be questioned in terms of the balance between collective goals and individual freedom.

The limited sport tradition in Cuba prior to its revolution made the work of INDER difficult. Therefore, INDER initially planned to physically educate the population, from whose schools physical education had been virtually absent. Fitness has in many countries become a priority for governments at times of crisis; to ensure military survival, Cuba needed a physically fit nation. The need had been highlighted by the abortive invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and by the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was not surprising that the Cuban government wanted to produce a physically fit nation ready to meet any foreign invasion and demonstrate the superiority of a socialist over a capitalist system. The army’s role was expanded as Cuba sought to extend its military influence overseas, especially in Africa, and Cuba today has a large standing army (as well as a comprehensive civilian militia). Sport in Marxist Cuba clearly involved ideological and military considerations, but there were also altruistic considerations. As in other developing countries, sport in Cuba has been linked to providing health education, fitness, and well-being for the whole population. Hampson (1980) reported, for example, that in 1961 INDER organized two large gymnastic/athletic displays involving 25,000 and 70,000 people, respectively, showcasing the new capacity of the population to demonstrate its fitness.

In order to stimulate participation and discover athletic talent, INDER organized the Ready to Win physical tests (Listas para Vencer, or LPV). With their fairly high militaristic content, these resembled the Soviet program for earning the “GTO (signifying ready for labor and defense) badge.” Cuba’s athletic examinations were established in 1961. By 1964 nearly 1 million people participated in the tests (Griffiths & Griffiths, 1979), although the socialist propaganda machine has no doubt exaggerated participation, in the same way that this was done in the Soviet Union (Hardman, 1996). John Coghlan thinks that, “the number of participants were probably falsified [because] sport was used as a tool for propaganda” (personal communication, June 2, 2003). In order to generate interest in these tests, the mass media provided television, radio, and press coverage, and the postal service issued a set of stamps illustrating the various tests. No prizes were awarded, but successful participants were awarded certificates and badges. In 1965, the LPV tables were revised, and more ambitious physical objectives were set out of concern to know the population’s physical efficiency not only as a reflection of sports participation, but also as a result of better nourishment and better public health.

The limited sport facilities in Cuba before 1953 were located in the capital, Havana. INDER wished to promote sport in rural areas, too, and so devised the “Plan of the Mountains,” a scheme to involve the rural population in sport. In 1963, the Escambray Mountains (located north of Trinidad, in the Las Villas province) were chosen for a pilot study. INDER representatives visited the rural towns and villages to determine the type of sport facilities required to increase participation. The administrators did not impose their own ideas; they asked rural citizens what facilities they would like, working with them on a plan. INDER’s study pointed out a wealth of untapped sport talent in the Escambray Mountains region, and 31 installations were built there (Hampson, 1980). Each installation was attached to a farm, consisting of an outdoor area or possibly a barn-type covered building. They were not complex sports centers by any means. John Coghlan (personal communication, June 2, 2003) notes that the simple facilities allowed playing of football, baseball, basketball, and volleyball, sports requiring little capital expenditure. The Cubans were attempting to resolve a problem unique to their situation: how to promote participation in sport with so few sport facilities.

As Coghlan (1986) notes, people, not facilities, ultimately make things work. Cuba also attended to training volunteers in sports administration and coaching. From each area in which a sports installation had been sited, two volunteers were selected for a course preparing them to increase sport participation in their community. They were taught the basic rules of sports as well as coaching fundamentals, how to develop interest in a sport, and how to organize competitions. The volunteers were largely responsible for the success of INDER’s plan, freely giving time to learn skills and, on their return from the courses, to lead and motivate the population. Also key to success were scholarship students returning from studying in East Germany and required to spend 6 months working in the Escambray Mountains. INDER’s initial success led to a further sport-promotion effort in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where 22 sport installations were constructed. The proliferation of such projects resulted in organization of an intermountain regional games, further promoting sport participation in rural areas and contributing to the success of the schemes (Hampson, 1980).

In 1964, in an attempt to provide more qualified physical education teachers, Castro launched a plan known as INDER-MINED. The plan symbolized the involvement of the state in organizing sport in socialist Cuba. Its particular aim was to provide a qualified physical education teacher for every Cuban elementary school. Hampson (1980) describes the 1964 INDER-MINED summer school attended by 26,000 elementary school teachers who were taught basic physical education activities. Later, an additional 14,500 teachers were retrained to teach physical education. Such an effort would have been impossible in a less centrally controlled country, but it was a commendable scheme and suggested the advances possible given the enthusiasm of the state and its power to encourage teachers’ involvement. Although some Cuban government claims have been shown to be fictional, the quality of physical education teaching was raised.

In 1966, another sport-participation campaign was launched, called the “Plan of the Streets.” Children 6–12 years of age were given the opportunity to play sports in the streets of towns and villages each Sunday from 0800 to 1300. To promote participation, INDER organized theConsejos Voluntarios del INDER, unpaid men and women orchestrating the street activities. The Plan of the Streets, according to John Coghlan, was

a very impressive scheme in which the volunteers came forward to assist children develop. Cubans felt that the revolution had taken place, and there was a great upsurge in pride in the country compared with the dead-beat awful situation that had existed in the country with Batista and the disgusting American regime. (personal communication, June 2, 2003)

Again, voluntary service in sport was a distinctive feature of sport  throughout Cuba. Because even governments having substantial power can only do so much, it was people who made it work.

Castro’s overarching strategy was to unite the population behind common sporting goals and also to use sport in establishing a shared national identity for his young nation. The Plan of the Mountains, INDER-MINED, and the Plan of the Streets all aimed at promoting “sport for all.” The government also thought that every person should be given the opportunity to achieve excellence in sport. As INDER argued, from this reservoir of participation, top international athletes would certainly emerge, to the glory of Cuba. Athletic talent identification would take place in Cuba’s schools. Pupils who were shown in school testing programs or through interscholastic competition to be the most promising performers would be sent to Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar(EIDE), or Schools for Initiation into Scholastic Sport. There are 30 such schools located around the island, boarding schools where student-athletes train and are monitored while also completing a typical school curriculum. Hampson (1980) describes in detail the impressive facilities at the EIDE at Holguín in southeastern Cuba. These include its own hospital and facilities for pediatric, dental, orthopedic, and psychological care (the school’s pupils also receive supplementary food rations to compensate for the expenditure of energy while training). Such facilities are indicative of the emphasis government places on developing athletes.

Yamilé Aldama, a Cuban international triple jumper, describes how her athletic talent was identified and led her to an EIDE:

I was playing games at school, and the teachers noticed that I was fast. So I went to a sports school at the age of 10. It was a boarding school and catered for all sports including chess! We did our academic work, but also trained for two to three hours each day. We also had doctors and sports psychologists to look after us. It was good fun. (personal communication, June 4, 2003)

Admission to an EIDE usually comes at age 12, although swimmers and gymnasts may enter at 8 or 9. The schools are primarily concerned with producing the sports elite providing the basis of Cuba’s national teams. The very best of the schools is the Lenin School, situated outside Havana. According again to John Coghlan,

It is very impressive. The elitism of the Lenin School is based on the interpretation of Marxism–that is the development of intellectual and physical ability. There is the best part of 4,000 students there, and the facilities are not lavish, but they are very adequate. The school day is similar to those developed at sports schools in the U.S.S.R., where they combined the development of academic and sporting excellence. The Lenin School is involved with the development of the intellectual and sporting elite. (personal communication, June 2, 2003)

The young student-athletes receive a general education like any other child; such students who do not perform academically may lose their place at sports school. Yamilé Aldama remembers, however, that “Good athletes who were not very good academically were given extra tuition to help them on their course” (personal communication, June 4, 2003). All pupils attending sports schools must maintain their athletic performance as well as a high academic level, and they must also show strong political commitment. After several years at an EIDE, very promising pupils graduate to the Escuelas Superior de Perfeccionamiento Atlético (ESPA), or High Schools of Athletic Perfection. There are 13 of these schools, 1 in each province plus 1 in Havana (Griffiths & Griffiths, 1979; Hampson, 1980). Typically, a student-athlete remains at school until age 19, when top athletes transfer to the national training center in Havana known as Sports City (Ciudad Deportiva) and serving as well as INDER headquarters. Athletes attending the national training center have a nominal occupation but are essentially full-time athletes. Other athletes follow up EIDE and ESPA with study at the University of Havana, where athletic training is accommodated by an extension of the number of years allowed for degree completion.

Alternatively, an EIDE/ESPA student can go on to become a specialist physical education teacher, studying for 5 years at the Escuela Provincial de Educación Física (EPEF), one of Cuba’s seven specialist institutes. The entrance requirements are completion of seventh grade (minimum age 13) and an interest in sport. The very best EPEF students can go on to study at Havana’s specialist physical education college, the Escuela Superior de Educación Física (ESEF), whose graduates are expected to initiate research in sports sciences, biological sciences, and teaching techniques and are furthermore expected to work in the community to raise the general level of physical and sport education. In the past Cuba sent its best athletes to study in the Soviet Union and East Germany. Between 1963 and 1985, 45 Cubans graduated from sport-related educational programs in other countries, 35 in the Soviet Union, 6 in East Germany, and 2 each in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia.

INDER headquarters at Sports City is situated on Havana’s outskirts. It is a large complex, not unlike a national sports center in England or a sports facility on a U.S. university campus. It is dominated by a 12,000-seat indoor stadium; murals featuring Ché Guevara are everywhere around the building and on the walls of apartment blocks nearby (the Argentine revolutionary is regarded affectionately in Cuba). At Sports City  Cuba’s best athletes are given advanced sports coaching and all attention necessary for them to represent Cuba at international competitions (Griffiths & Griffiths, 1979).

INDER has readily acknowledged the support of other socialist countries (Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany) for its efforts. The countries developed a system for exchange of expertise. In the period 1969–1972, more than 50 Soviet coaches helped train Cuban athletes for major international events. Initially, Cuban boxers were particularly successful, but it must be remembered that they compete with other countries’ amateur boxers; those countries’ best boxers fight professionally and are excluded from, for example, the Olympic Games. With time, Cuba also became successful in some sports more associated with developed countries: weight lifting, judo, and water-polo. During a 1976 visit to an EIDE on Cuba’s Isle of Pines (Isla de Pinos,renamed in 1978 as Isla de la Juventud), Pickering (1980) noted  priority was given to swimming, diving, water polo, canoeing, and sailing. The Cubans’ success in water sports is surprising, perhaps, as these are not traditionally associated with their culture. Ironically, as the country has no cycling velodrome, Cuban cyclists are very successful in the Pan American Games. This indicates that performance depends as much on commitment and determination as it does on expensive facilities.

What Cuba achieves in sport is, in fact, based on political philosophy, borrowed from Eastern European ideology integrating sport and politics. Successful development of sport by the Cubans must “be located in the political and social context” it occurred in (Griffiths & Griffiths, 1979, p. 260). In Cuba, sport is an integral part of political culture and is available to all. This is the case in most countries, to greater or lesser degrees, yet sport in Cuba, like sport in Eastern Europe, stands out as a “service to the people no more and no less than any other component of the culture” (Griffiths & Griffiths, 1979, p. 260).

Cuban Sport in the 1990s: After the “Wall” Came Down

The Cuban news media minimized events in the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1992, for authorities were concerned that Cubans would follow that example and rise against communism. The Soviet Union, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist. This radical power shift and the resulting economic chaos in Eastern Europe precluded further material support for Cuba from communist governments it had relied on (Riordan,1999); the $5 billion annual subsidy from the Kremlin evaporated. In Cuba, the economic effect of the changes in Europe was devastating. The United States was not inclined to lift the economic boycott, and it pressured its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to follow suit. Cuba began to suffer material shortages, and in 1990 Castro implemented an austerity package known as the “Special Period in Peacetime.” Energy conservation was a top priority: Power cuts became a feature of everyday life. Factories and offices closed, bus services were reduced, oxen and carts took the place of tractors, bicycles were imported from China, and rationing was introduced.

Washington increased the pressure on Cuba, introducing further sanctions in order to destabilize the country and its president. The U.S. Congress in 1992 approved the Torricelli bill that forbade overseas subsidiaries of American firms to trade with Cuba and authorized the president to bring economic sanctions against, or cut off trade with, any country that assisted them. At a later stage, the Helms-Burton bill was introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, who described Fidel Castro as “a bloody, murderous dictator, a brutal tyrannical thug” (CBS, 1996). The Helms-Burton bill has been described as the toughest legislation ever enacted to bring about the fall of the Castro dictatorship, and it indicated the animosity felt by some U.S. citizens towards Castro and Cuba.

In addition, unrest recurred within Cuba. Arnaldo Ochoa, a popular figure rumored to favor Soviet-style perestroika, was executed. This was clearly a message to Cubans who thought of undermining Castro, and in 1991 the Communist Party Congress reiterated the message that Cuba had no intention of following the recent example of its former allies. There was a spate of small demonstrations in Havana in 1993, and hundreds of Cubans were imprisoned while others tried to flee across the Florida Straits to the United States. That country could not handle the estimated 30,000 people who attempted to gain entry to it, so President Bill Clinton had to reverse the long-standing policy of granting political asylum to Cubans. In Cuba, many thousands of people have been imprisoned since the 1990s, perceived as threats to social and political order; known dissidents are closely watched by security forces. There are approximately 300 prisons in Cuba containing 5,000 people whose political beliefs are not to the liking of the authorities (Sugden, 1996).

However, there does appear to be momentum behind economic liberalization in Cuba. For example, private markets and restaurants have been legalized, and this creates more pressure for political change. The Cuban economy is weak, and goods are in short supply. Whenever products are available, long queues form to buy them. Many products, even basic ones, are rationed. Old Havana is dominated by dilapidated Spanish-style buildings and utilitarian Soviet-style high-rise office buildings. At night, most of the city is only dimly lit for a few hours. American limousines, relics of the 1940s and 1950s, pollute the atmosphere; old Soviet Lada cars, ancient trucks, and Chinese bicycles transport citizens around the city. The streets are in disrepair. People wait patiently at the side and in the middle of roads for a bus or a lift from a passing motorist. Children play in and out of doorways and in the streets. Adults lounge on the doorsteps or in the open-grilled windows of houses devoid of luxuries and chat, smoke, or gaze into space. In 1995, Cuba had the highest suicide rate in the western hemisphere. There is a feeling of resignation and little time for insurrection. Dissatisfaction with the regime has risen during the “Special Period,” but few dare express their feelings. Many Cubans believe the revolution has become stagnant because Castro has failed to adapt his political and economic views, despite radical changes in the former Soviet countries (Sugden, 1996).

There is still only one political party in Cuba, the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC); it maintains rigid centralized control and does not allow any opposition. Castro has survived 35 years of American sanctions, the death of the Soviet Union, and the political upheavals of 1994. He is still at center stage in terms of international events like the investiture of Nelson Mandela and 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The leadership has had to display increased openness towards the West in order to boost tourism and foreign investment. Cuba is now one of the most popular destinations for British and Canadian holiday makers on long-haul flights. Tourism has surpassed sugar as the main currency earner for Cuba, grossing $1 billion in 1995; the number of workers employed in tourism has risen from 630,000 in 1994 to 740,000 in 1995.

Predictions are that there will be over 2 million tourists by the year 2000. The presence of tourists with a “daily spending capacity in excess of $100  . . . in a country in which a doctor might earn $20 per month, and manual workers far less, presents problems, and therefore tourists are a target for unsolicited attention” (Sugden, 1996, p. 145). Young men and women patrol tourist quarters, hotels, and beaches seeking ways of making money in the tourist industry. Cuba is in need of hard currency, U.S. dollars in particular (in 1993 it became legal in Cuba to possess U.S. dollars). The Cuban peso is worthless on the international currency market, and the government will do almost anything to earn hard currency; Cubans are paid in pesos, however, making life a constant scrabble for dollars. One consequence is Cuba’s thriving sex trade, in which Cubans prostitute themselves individually and collectively to foreigners, and petty thieves make a living by robbing tourists.

Cuba is the largest and most fertile island in the Caribbean, and it ought to have the strongest economy. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s highly centralized command economy has resulted in a weak economy. Traditionally the main element of the economy, the sugar industry has been hit by a shortage of fuel and spare parts, so harvests have declined; prices, moreover, have fluctuated on the world market. Manufacturing industries are running at 50% of full capacity, and imports have been reduced. Since 1989, Cuba has lost most of its Warsaw Pact trading partners that used to account for over 85% of its trade. Hence, Cuba has turned to Latin America for assistance, so imports from this area rose from 7% in 1990 to 47% in 1993 (Calder & Hatchwell, 1996). An increase in foreign investment is necessary, and this has been forthcoming from Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Spain, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Spain has given Cuba $12.5 million in aid and $100 million in soft loans over a 4-year period and much more in private investment associated with the tourist trade (Sugden, 1996). These countries have shown an interest in all areas of the economy including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, oil, and partnership with foreign capital (usually Spanish, Canadian, or British), through which the foreign investor receives 49% of the profit and the Cuban government 51%. Such developments are attractive propositions for European investors, who need not compete with North American companies to invest in Cuba.

Each year, Cuba continues to invest $80 million in sport, representing 2% of its gross domestic product. The government invests a disproportionate amount of its resources in its athletes, educating , feeding, and clothing them, paying for their equipment and travel. Being a top-class athlete brings opportunity for foreign travel denied most other Cubans. Yamilé Aldama offered the following about being an athlete in Cuba:

I attended an Escuela Superior de Perfeccionamiento Atlético  from the age of 17. We were trained by Cuban coaches. [Prior to 1990 there had been coaches from the U.S.S.R. and East Germany.] It was a boarding school, so we had plenty of time to train, usually about 2 to 3  hours per day, in the afternoon. But we had to study hard as well. Then I went to the University of Havana to study physical culture and took 6 years to graduate. As an athlete, the government paid for everything, and we were well looked after, as we had the use of doctors, nutritionists, and sports scientists. (personal communication, June 4, 2003)

Athletes in Cuba lead a marginally better life than the average Cuban, receiving special schooling, an apartment, a car, and an allowance for better food and clothing. When, in 1991, 70 athletes defected from Cuba, that was very irritating. Much money had been spent on their development. The most likely of Cuban athletes to defect are the baseball players and boxers, drawn to the high pay in the United States for their sports. Yamilé Aldama describes her experience as a full-time athlete this way:

On graduating from the University of Havana, I became a full-time athlete. We did not have a job so I trained for 3 or 4 hours each day under the supervision of the national coaches. We received some money, but it was not a huge amount. For the rest of the day, I relaxed at home with my parents. The system allowed me to travel to international meetings and to take part in the Olympic Games in 1996. On retirement, some of the athletes were employed within the sports system as coaches or as sports development officers.

With Cuba’s economy in chaos, its sports facilities are deteriorating. They are now outdated and in need of repair, many consisting of shabby, rusty buildings with gaps in the roof through which rain enters. The author witnessed the junior handball team training in the Sala Polivalente Kid Chocolate (Kid Chocolate Multipurpose Hall, named for a famous Cuban boxer), when there was a power cut. The athletes continued as if it were a common occurrence, undeterred by this “slight” inconvenience. The weight training room was in disrepair, but the Cubans were quite proud of its dilapidated machines.

There are no longer enough facilities to meet demand. Gone are the lavish community recreation and leisure centers, and there are few swimming pools and no velodrome or ice rink. There used to be organized gymnastic classes in clubs and workplaces along with locally organized public physical efficiency classes and groups meeting to exercise within housing communes or blocks of flats. There is no evidence of this happening now.

Fidel Castro once proclaimed that, “One day when the Yankees accept peaceful coexistence with our own country, we shall beat them at baseball too, and then the advantages of revolutionary over capitalist sport will be shown” (Pickering, 1980, p. 52). During a time when diplomatic links between the United States and Cuba have been minimal, sport has occasionally been used as a means of communication. There were exchanges in basketball, baseball, and volleyball in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, the Baltimore Orioles baseball team’s 28 March 1999 visit to Cuba was of great significance, the first time in 40 years a Major League Baseball team had played in Cuba. Although the game had no political agenda, Orioles owner Peter Angelos said, “If this leads to an improvement in relations between our two countries, and ultimately much greater contact between our two people, millions of Americans would be delighted” (Whitworth, 1999, p. 4 ).

After the revolution, professional baseball was abolished in Cuba. Cuban and U.S. teams meet only in major international tournaments like the Olympics, in which U.S. professional players do not play and which Cuban teams dominate. (Cuba in 1992 became the first Olympic champion in baseball.) During their historic visit, the Orioles beat a Cuban all-star team 3–2 at the Estadio Latinamericano (Latin American Stadium) in Havana. In the return match in Baltimore on 5 May 1999, however, Castro got his wish as the Cuban national team won 12–6. It is claimed that this was a huge propaganda coup for Fidel Castro.

Despite things like baseball exchanges, relations between Cuba and the United States remain bitter, because the countries have different motives for cultural exchanges. The United States continues to work to undermine Castro’s administration; Cuba seeks to highlight the injustices of U.S. policy. But even so, cultural exchanges may offer a vital contribution to overcoming political differences. The solution in the short term might lie with Cuba’s attempt to boost tourism and increase foreign investment, which could lead to increasing openness towards the West. This may occur simply because Cuba is in need of hard currency. The tourist industry is designed to earn as much money as possible, with resorts such as Varedero and Cayo Coco, an offshore attraction for tourists only, exclusively dedicated to tourism. These resorts feature long stretches of Cuba’s best beaches adjoined by luxury hotels in which mainly Canadian and European tourists congregate.

To boost tourism and foreign investment, the leadership must display increased openness towards the West (including the United States). Of course, the economy should not rely completely on the tourist industry: It is in the nature of many if not most tourists to prefer new destinations, as they present themselves, over established ones. Cuba is essentially an agricultural nation; therefore, an economy based on its natural resources along with the influx of tourists should be the government’s goal. In the short term, funds generated by the tourist industry should be used to sustain and improve Cuba’s infrastructure. For example, the deteriorating quality of education and physical education need to be addressed. With every new reform, the Cuban people’s expectations of new facilities rise, stoking political pressure for yet more change and a reorientation towards Western political ideology. As more money becomes available, the shabby, rusty, and dilapidated sports facilities should improve. An obvious method of sponsorship and commercialism, as in the United States, has no place in Cuban ideology.

The Theory Underlying Cuban Sport

Discussion of sport and the state includes ongoing debate between the proponents of different perspectives. Understanding the Marxist perspective facilitates discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of sport in communist countries like Cuba. Taking Gramsci’s neo-Marxist perspective, specifically, one would interpret political power as the outcome of a balance between force and consent (Horne et al., 1999; Poulantzas, 1973; Sage, 1997; Sugden & Barner, 1993). In Gramsci’s view, states attempt to rule either by consent or by the ideological, cultural, and moral authority of the ruling class Gramsci refers to as hegemony.

Hargreaves (1982), more specifically, says that the concept of hegemony is used to explain the contradictory features of the connections between culture and ideology and the economic and political aspects of the totality. For Hargreaves, hegemony “defines a specifically historical form of class domination, throughout civil society and the state, which becomes embedded in the consciousness as ‘commonsense’ through the ordinary experiences and relationships of everyday life” (p. 14). The state always attempts to rule by consent. This is sometimes difficult as both the ruling classes and the working classes are fragmented, and because individuals have ideas and opinions that at once support and oppose those of the dominant classes: so-called dual consciousness. The state tries to maintain hegemony despite the existence of dual consciousness, or contradictory beliefs. From this perspective, power does not reside in the wealthy elite alone. Power is distributed throughout the range of institutions, and no one group has access to all social power, which nevertheless is unevenly distributed. It is suggested that governments maintain hegemony by involving the population in a national project, such as sport, in order to construct a national popular culture.

Gramscian concepts have considerable explanatory powers when applied to Cuba. However, with the collapse of regimes in the communist societies of Eastern Europe, though the model remains influential, the pull of Marxist thought, insofar as it was identified with the official imposed state ideology, has receded (Bottomore, 1993).

More recent accounts of the role of the state include a “society-centered” approach (McGrew, 1992, p. 95) that sees the state as influenced by society, and the “state-centered” approach (McGrew, 1992, p. 99) that sees the state determining policies.A society-centered state may be viewed as weak, while a state-centered government may be viewed as strong (Horne et al., 1999). A strong state is “able to implement its decisions against societal resistance and/or can resist societal demands from even the most powerful groups” (McGrew, 1992, p. 105). A weak state fails at both of those tasks, “owing to societal resistance and the lack of resources” (McGrew, 1992, p. 105).

In terms of sport, Cuba is  certainly an example of a strong state. Sport comes under the direct jurisdiction of the government, although that could change in time, some liberalizing of the state apparatus in Cuba having already occurred. In various ways, this model provides valuable insight into the relationships among the state, power, infrastructure, and sport. In addition, globalization processes affect the international context of contemporary state activity, which may limit state autonomy while at the same time enhancing state ability to pursue wider, external objectives (McGrew, 1992). A reaction to internationalism and globalization is that local, regional, and national communities will retain those traditions developed through sport to define cultural identities, some of which are associated with the making of some nations (Jarvie, 1993).

In his analysis of the relationship between sport and ideology, Hoberman (1984, 1993) suggests that the ideological interpretation of sport is subordinate to what he calls “sportive nationalism” (1984, p. 15). This is the acceptance of high-level ideals and a competitive ethos in which scientific methods are being used to improve performance. Sportive nationalism is the ambition of the political elite in a variety of political cultures who wish to see their athletes excel at major international sports events.

For Hoberman, there are tensions between states and individuals who support sportive nationalism and those who do not. He maintains that with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites between 1989 and 1992, long-standing rivalries between East and West have been reduced (although they still exist in Cuba). The international sport system continues to encourage sportive nationalism, as does the increasingly commercialized Olympic Games. Hoberman (1993) informs us that all types of political ideologies support international sport competitions “as a testing ground for the nation or a political system” (p. 17), and this is still very apparent in Cuba. More specifically, Hoberman suggests that sportive nationalism is not a single generic phenomenon, but rather a complicated response to challenges and events of different forms in different political cultures. Hence Cuba, a small country with a population of 11 million people, practices intense sportive nationalism as a desirable policy, especially prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Under INDER, its organizing body for sport, Cuba created a structure focusing on mass participation and preparation of elite athletes, to win both international stature and domestic credibility. Castro’s scheme utilized available resources to produce a successful sporting nation.

In Cuba, high-level sport creates an ideal subculture in which the communist ideology motivates athletes to perform well against their capitalist rivals, especially the United States. The regime creates an optimal environment for the development of high-performance athletes. The system in Cuba represents a perfect example of a well-organized structure that enables elite athletes to progress. Investment in sport in Cuba was and is a means of identifying the citizen with the state. Hoberman further maintains that high-level sport was, and still is, synonymous with communist countries like Cuba. Driven by ideology, communist regimes are relatively enthusiastic about developing elite athletes through the application of science; under communist regimes, certain ideological factors contribute to promoting a scientific approach to athletic performance. The organization of elite sport, however, is not necessarily the sole domain of a Marxist-Leninist ideology. Nor is reliance on scientific approaches necessarily inherently communist; the end of the communist era does not mean the end of scientific pursuit of better athletic performance, as practitioners of Western sport science are just as ambitious as communist sport scientists. The one difference, in Cuba’s case, is that development of elite athletes was and is state sponsored.


Despite many social problems in Cuba since 1990, the country is still very successful in international sport. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Cuba won 25 medals, taking an additional 27 at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Research by Nevill and Stead (2002) indicates a very strong relationship between a nation’s gross national product in U.S. dollars and its success in the Olympics, but Cuba’s GNP is modest and it performed better than any other nation at the Sydney Olympics. It is difficult to imagine that over the next decade Cuba can maintain the same levels of success at international sport. There is evidence to suggest a halt to social programs during the “Special Period.” It seems unlikely that Castro will be able to maintain socialist structures while moving towards a free market economy. Whether or not there are social and political changes in Cuba during the next 10 years might depend on the longevity of Castro. However, it is hoped that the sport system adopted by Cuba can be fine-tuned rather than radically altered. Those involved in sport must decide how to break with the past and adopt a system based on market conditions.


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