Always Fidel

The United States attempted to prevent Cuban athletes from participating in the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1966. Prohibited from arriving by air, the delegation traveled by sea aboard the Cerro Pelado and went on to win 77 medals

This story began months before the 10th Central American and Caribbean Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when the president of Cuba’s Olympic Committee, Manuel González Guerra, was informed by the United States State Department that visas for Cuban athletes to participate in the event could not be processed by the Swiss embassy in Havana.

Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), member General José Jesús Clark Flores from Mexico, and Felicio To­rre­grosa, president of the Committee in Puerto Rico discussed the situation and demanded that U.S. authorities approve the visas, but the promised response did not arrive from the State Department. General Clark Flores insisted that Puerto Rico’s Olympic endorsement would be withdrawn if Cuba’s participation in the Games was not resolved.

State Department director for Caribbean and Mexican Affairs Allen Stewart responded that the athlete’s visas would be processed in the U.S. embassy in Mexico, and the IOC recommended that Cuba’s Olympic Committee accept the proposal. The process was initiated, but 10 days before the Games were to take place, the State Department announced that visas would not be awarded, that the athletes’ passports would be given a special stamp, and also denied permission for Cubana Airlines craft to land in San Juan.

The Cuban Olympic Committee denounced this aggression and demanded respect for international norms and regulations governing the organization of regional multi-event games. Our right to participate in the Central American and Caribbean Games was defended.

In this situation, the heroic events surrounding the Cerro Pelado emerged, June 7, 1966, demonstrating the fighting spirit and commitment of the country’s nascent sports movement. With characteristic speed and discretion, Comandante en Jefe, Fidel Castro Ruz, conceptualized, ordered and directed the battle.

In Santiago de Cuba, the merchant ship was prepared with great care and equipped for the voyage to San Juan, with basic accommodations for the Cuban athletes. The reconditioning included dormitories, a kitchen, massage and dining halls, plus areas for rest and relaxation. Set to travel aboard the ship were the 365 members of Cuba’s delegation – athletes, coaches, medical staff, sports leaders, and journalists.

Participants today recall much of this as surprising. The days leading up to the Games had been busy ones for those organizing the delegation’s participation in San Juan, but many of us were not aware of the details.

The entire group departed from Havana’s José Martí International Airport on the Cubana planes we thought would take us to Puerto Rico, but we landed first in Camagüey and then in Santiago de Cu­ba. Here we learned that the rest of the trip would not be by air, but by sea. From this heroic city we cast off on the Cerro Pelado, with the valuable “cargo” in the hands of a first class crew led by Captain Onelio Pino.

After many hours at sea, drawing close to the shores of Puerto Rico, with athletes exercising and training on deck, a U.S. Coast Guard plane approached the ship flying low, and dropped a note saying that our entry into U.S. territorial waters, San Juan, or Puerto Rico was prohibited. Filmmaker Santiago Álvarez from the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) recovered the note, and cameraman Iván Nápoles, filmed the plane’s swoop over the ship to preserve the memory for all time.

Before arriving, assembled on the ship’s deck, we unanimously approved the Declaration of Cerro Pelado, outlining the current and future principles of Cuban sports, after it was read aloud by José Llanusa Gobel, director of the Institute of Sports, Recreation and Physical Education (INDER).

Three miles from San Juan, June 10, General Clark Flores and Puerto Rican sports leader Germán Rieckehoff Sam­pa­yo boarded the ship, and met with José Llanusa Gobel, head of the delegation, and Ma­nuel González Guerra, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee, to make the necessary logistical arrangements for the delegation’s landing. It was a difficult and dangerous operation; the sharks were circling. The ladder of private ship Reacok touched the Cerro Pelado; 100 persons went down.

We barely arrived on time to Hiram Bithorn Stadium where the inauguration was set to take place; we paraded; and the Puerto Rican people greeted us with applause and a group of friends chanted in solidarity, “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba!” The press gave our arrival significant coverage, and the landing was broadcast live on radio.

Despite the difficulties, the Cuban delegation performed with dignity and determination, winning 77 medals, 34 gold, 20 silver, and 23 bronze, to take second place in the medal count.

A group of enemies of the Revolution physically attacked and verbally insulted our delegation, but they were never able to undermine the principles, integrity, or dignity of our people.

The return trip to Cuba began. The first several hours at sea went by as we conversed happily on deck. Friend and broadcast announcer, Eddy Martin, said to me, “What a delegation!” Granma reporter Juan Marrero commented, “A performance that met the demands,” and Llanusa Gobel concluded, “A happy ending!”

We were drawing close to the Santiago de Cu­ba coast, and I remember, 50 years ago, a small boat approached the Cerro Pelado. The ladder was placed at the ship’s side, and with a strong wind gusting, Fidel climbed up, wearing a raincoat, accompanied by other leaders of the Revolution. The emotion brought tears to my eyes, which blended with the rain on my face.

The Comandante en Jefe greeted us all and said, “I am very proud of your revolutionary attitude and athletic performance,” adding, “The homeland salutes your loyalty and determination.”

Later would come the events and official reception, June 29, 1966, when Fidel spoke and asked, “Why try to prevent the participation of a country where sports is no longer a privilege for the rich, exploiting few, where sports activity is not only for the children of the rich?…”

He went on to say, “With this event, the Revolution has won one more battle against imperialism,” continuing, “What the Cuban Olympic Committee did was denounce the U.S. government’s coercion, demanding conditions of a political order that had nothing to do with sports, to allow the presence of Cuba in their colony, Puerto Rico…”

At another point during his talk, he said, “Very few times, perhaps never before in any Central American event, has a delegation, such a large number of athletes from the same country, won so many medals,” emphasizing, “Perhaps no other delegation from our homeland merits so much gratitude, for the battle waged, for the victories won at the most difficult moments, for the dignity shown at all times…”

The Cerro Pelado feat again demonstrated how Fidel was always with us, and has accompanied us to victory.

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