The baseball stadium that is home to Cuba’s Cienfuego Elephants resembles Tacoma’s old Cheney Stadium, with gray concrete arms supporting a gray concrete roof.
There is one major difference.
Nowhere in the Cuban stadium will you find any advertising. No billboards. No beer-cams on a big screen. No naming rights screaming in neon.
There is only one message writ large high above and behind home plate: “Revolucion Si.”
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Yes to the revolution, to Castro and Che, to the power of the citizenry against an oppressive regime.
And where six decades have passed since that revolution overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista, another revolution has been quietly brewing.
Cuba is about to rejoin the world.
President Barack Obama begins his visit to Cuba on Sunday (March 20), becoming the first president to visit since Calvin Coolidge. The United States has opened its embassy in Havana for the first time in 54 years. The Tampa Bay Rays will play an exhibition game during Obama’s visit.
In addition, several U.S. airlines have announced plans to bid for the right to fly commercial routes between the U.S. mainland and the island. Tour operators are preparing for an expected rush of American tourists.
Slowly, tentatively, politically — Cuba and the United States are beginning to normalize diplomatic relations.
As it turns out, Tacoma got there first — despite the politics and economic sanctions.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Tacoma’s sister-city relationship with Cienfuegos, a port city on Cuba’s south-central coast facing the Caribbean Sea.
A few weeks ago, a dozen Northwesterners visited Cienfuegos to renew friendships and a commitment Tacomans made in 2001 to help build Cienfuegos into a modern, international city.
There was something of a battle over Cienfuegos 15 years ago, recalls a member of the committee who made that original trip. Cuba had opened its borders to sister cities and Cienfuegos was looking for a sibling.
Tacoma and Seattle came courting.
“The committee back then thought it was a great idea,” said Marisela Fleites-Lear, who helped make the original pitch at a conference in Havana.
“At the time, we got a great reception. Cuba had organized the sister-city conference. The goal was to get the program going.
“We were excited about Cienfuegos,” she said. “It’s a port surrounded by mountains. There were many similarities with Tacoma.
“We had no idea it was possible. When I went to that national conference, I met the mayor (Remberto De la Hoz) and we just hit it off immediately. There was a fight with Seattle — they were trying to convince Remberto that Seattle was better than Tacoma. Ultimately, Remberto decided for us.”
Fleites-Lear returned to Tacoma and presented the idea to the City Council.
“We had to go to a public meeting,” she said. “Some one or two in the pubic opposed it because of the dictatorship, on political grounds. The council was very supportive. Once the council supported it, we sent a delegation to Cienfeugos.”
Thus were the City of Destiny and the Perla del Sur, or Pearl of the South, joined in civic sisterhood.
TOURISTS AND YOGURT
Columbus sailed into what would later be called Bahia de Cienfuegos, or the Bay of Cienfuegos, in 1494. Settled in 1819, the city was the first to see an uprising, in 1957, against the dictator Batista.
In 2005, Cienfuegos was proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage Site given its abundance (333 buildings) of 19th-century architecture.
At 129 square miles, Cienfuegos is about twice the size of Tacoma, but falls short of Tacoma’s population of 205,000 by some 45,000 residents. It is a city born of slavery and sugar cane, and has evolved to become a tourist destination.
American cars manufactured before 1960 compete with horse-drawn carts and Korean-built tour buses on potholed streets. Buildings stand brightly painted in pastels, although the pastels are peeling.
And though shoes, rum, cigars and cooking oil are readily available in downtown shops, one member of the Tacoma sister-city party spent the first two days of the trip trying to buy a comb.
There are no Bartell’s, no Walgreens, no Walmart in Cienfuegos.
But there are tourists.
If Americans have hesitated to visit Cuba because of political restrictions, visitors from other nations have not.
A tour guide speaking German competes with another speaking English during a tour of Cienfuego’s Teatro Tomas Terry, the circa-1889 theater where Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso once sang.
A French tour group arrives at the Hotel Union, filling the lobby just as a group of Canadians checks out. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, British, Mexican and other Latin American tourists stroll in the central Parque Marti.
Despite the political debate in the United States over a 57-year animus, Cuba has already opened itself to the world.
Still, prosperity can be measured only in potential.
A tour guide talks about building a business that will attract scuba enthusiasts. In the nearby mountains, in a small town so high that pines mix with palms, a widowed restaurant owner works from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., seven days a week. A tobacco farmer is about to open his farm to tourists, offering a bar, a restaurant and a cockfighting ring.
And take all those nostalgic American cars — the ’57 Chevys, the ’56 Fords, the old Buicks, Plymouths, Cadillacs, Pontiacs — that often are used as taxicabs. How have they been kept running and road-worthy over 60 years?
Well, take the story of a popular brand of Cuban yogurt.
Officials wondered why sales were up, severely up. They asked consumers, and it turns out it wasn’t the yogurt. That was thrown away, in fact, while the plastic tub it came in was washed and then melted.
Turns out this particular melted plastic made a great substitute for Bondo, a body-filler product used to erase dents, dings and scrapes in cars.
OLD SHELLS IN NEED OF REPLACEMENT
Over the past 15 years, the Tacoma Sister City Committee has supported several projects in Cienfuegos.
They range from the reconstruction of a hurricane-damaged medical clinic in 2001 to the restoration of a senior-citizens home in 2007-09, from the remodeling of a school for children with disabilities to sending supplies to help a local school for the deaf.
There have been artist and student exchanges, and the latest offering had Frances Lorenz of the Sister City Committee giving cash ($14,000 in euros) to buy audio-visual equipment for a cultural center that will give visitors a look at the history of Cienfuegos.
“This is where your money will have a result, for old people, for children, for everybody,” said an official with the center. “It brings us closer in the relationship between our two countries.
“We are very grateful that we have this relationship. Tacoma friends have made this possible. You can tell everybody from Tacoma they will be very welcome here. This is Tacoma’s house. Other friends have not been as brave as you. Viva Tacoma.”
At a meeting with officials from the University of Cienfuegos, there was a discussion with the delegation from Tacoma proposing a fresh exchange program between college students.
At the Academia Provincial de Remo y Vela — the provincial academy of rowing and sailing — there was talk of new racing shells to replace those that have served for decades. (Among them are some that were a gift from Walter Ulbricht, former first secretary of the East German central committee, back when there was an East Germany.)
“Friends, always friends,” said academy director Juan Alfonso.
Members of the Tacoma group visited churches and museums, town squares and inner city neighborhoods. They ate the staple pork (most of them), the fried plantains, the ubiquitous beans and rice.
They sampled mojitos and daiquiris and they drank coffee brewed from beans grown in nearby mountains and roasted on an outdoor stove. They traveled by bus, attended musical performances, strolled into art galleries.
In the end, most said the best part was meeting the Cuban people, the baseball players, the academics, the performers, the young men learning construction trades, the families.
“To me, it’s important,” said Frances Lorenz, senior minister at the Center for Spiritual Living and treasurer of the Tacoma-Cienfuegos Sister City Committee, discussing the value of sister cities.
“There was very little contact between the United States and Cuba,” she said, referring to those early days.
But on a visit to Cuba she discovered, “There’s a great love between the people.”
“Sister cities are important because they build relationships between people from one country and another country,” said Karl Anderson, Tacoma industrialist and vice chairman of the Tacoma committee.
“Hopefully through that we’ll have better relationships between countries,” he said. “Tacoma is a port city. Much of our success depends on international trade. We are bringing things to the people.
“Only by building relationships from the bottom up will we truly have good relationships. Eventually, that’s how the world becomes a better place.”
“People one on one is better than bombs and bullets,” said Bill Connolly of Tacoma, another member of the Tacoma group that visited Cienfuegos.
“I wanted to see what it’s like to live here, what their pleasures are, and the hardships,” he said. “I came with a strong opinion that they’re happy people, and I’m impressed with what they can do with very little.
“There’s a tremendous amount of creativity and imagination, and the people I talked to were very pro-U.S.”
“It’s not nearly as bad as I pictured,” said Terry Carkner of Ellensburg, formerly from Puyallup. “It’s wonderful that we’re helping to rebuild. Friendship between countries is important at the grass-roots level.”
She also appreciated “the music and the art, and the vibrant colors. There’s just a bright, lively atmosphere. And I felt safe everywhere, safer than in Mexico.”
HOPE, NO HOPE
The Cuban economy operates with two currencies, one for Cubans and another primarily for tourists.
A college-educated professional, for example, will earn less than $30 a month. A middle-school teacher on a street corner trying to change Cuban pesos for tourist currency says he earns the equivalent of $22 a month. Figure maybe a bit more for a physician.
A maid in a well-starred hotel can likely expect to earn perhaps 10 times as much in tips.
“Do not try to understand, or you’ll go crazy,” said a retired Cuban professor who one member of the Tacoma group met over lunch.
The delegation from Tacoma met officials and guides and others with a reason to speak with American tourists, but the group also met people who simply are raising families and contributing to their city.
For instance, every Tuesday, the director of the graphic design studio teaches art to Down syndrome students, ages 9 to 56. Elsewhere, a coach teaches badminton to children and adults who use wheelchairs.
“I’ve always liked doing this, this human work,” the coach said.
(Not surprisingly, a woman named Glenda Medins, she in a wheelchair, beat the stuffing out of the one member of the Tacoma group who accepted her challenge to a few volleys.)
“We are aware that we need to be careful, to have a balance,” said Iliana Ferriol Martinez, a Cienfuegos tour guide. “We need to keep our identity. We don’t want McDonald’s or Starbucks. In our economy, we need money, we need possibilities.”
Which Alberto Sanchez understands.
Mustard-yellow butterflies gather on the property he owns along a beach outside Cienfuegos. Beyond his beach is where the pargo — a fish not unlike a red snapper — come to spawn on the full moons of spring.
Sanchez also grows pigs, chickens and rabbits, along with tomatoes, squash and peppers.
He said he looks forward to attracting tourists. He’ll build rooms. He’ll earn a profit.
Karl Anderson calls this place “Alberto’s Paradise.”
“Before, he had no reason to dream,” Anderson said. “For 60 years, this was not possible. You could dream yourself to death.”
“There are people who don’t have dreams, and people like me who have never left their dreams,” said Martinez, the tour guide. “Now, people are very hopeful.
“I’m from the countryside, from a sugar-mill town. Everybody is trying to find a way to have a business, or at least they hope. People want to have, at least, the possibility of having money. To have a salary, to buy food, then nobody would leave Cuba.
“We have so many things to learn. The most important things for me is to always have a dream.”
She likes the idea of having a sister city, of knowing there are people in a place called Tacoma who care.
Said Anderson, “It’s one part of building a better world.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
Tacoma joins with the world
Tacoma has established a sister city relationship with 13 cities worldwide:
▪ Cienfuegos, Cuba
▪ Kitakyushu, Japan
▪ Gunsan, South Korea
▪ Kiryat Motzkin, Israel
▪ Alesund, Norway
▪ Vladivostok, Russia
▪ Davao City, Philippines
▪ Fuzhou, China
▪ George, South Africa
▪ Taichung, Republic of China
▪ El Jadida, Morocco
▪ Biot, France
▪ Hvar, Croatia