Havana’s Pan American Stadium, Another Ruin of Cement and Rusted Steel in the Cuban Landscape
Three decades of abandonment weigh on the Pan American Stadium in Havana. The cornerstone of a Pharaonic sports complex built by Fidel Castro in 1991, after fulfilling its initial purpose – to demonstrate to the world that socialist Cuba was capable of organizing a high-caliber event – now ??its decline has been unstoppable.
The logistical deployment for the XI Pan American Games, far beyond the Island’s possibilities, and the fall of the socialist camp months after the event was held, accelerated the arrival of the so-called Special Period. Since then, as a kind of symbol of the debacle, the stadium has reflected the country’s historical ups and downs.
Two factors have accentuated the decline of the premises: the poor quality of the materials with which it was built – fueled by Castro’s haste – and the proximity of the coast and the salt air, which has been wearing down the structure for years. The result, which those who cross the Monumental Road towards Alamar, Cojímar and Guanabo now see, is a unpainted mass, with the stands eaten away by rust and without lights in its tower.
Two workers – a man and a woman, both in their 40s – kill time in the stadium lobby. They have nothing to do, but they have been instructed to be “on guard” due to the poor conditions of the fence that surrounds the facilities. “We’ve been asking them to fix it for years,” says the man, who leans his heavy metal seat against the wall.
The woman, who is resting on a mat in poor condition, agrees with her partner. “People come here at night,” she warns, sitting up. “It is not unusual for one to come across an unpleasant situation or some ’gift’, such as used condoms and excrement.”
Although the appearance of the Pan American Stadium is that of a ruin, many athletes still train there, in addition to members of the national athletics team. When they finish running – in full sun and without the proper equipment, the workers say – it is “normal” that the showers have no water and that the young people have to return, sweaty, to their homes.
Last March, the official press published a report on the package of “fixes” for the facilities that the Government had financed. According to Cubadebate, authorities had worked hard to “rescue” the one-time sports colossus in Cuba. The repair, judging by the media’s own photos, consisted of the construction of a “modern gym” – in reality, with only a dozen pieces of equipment – ??and the partial remodeling of the lobby.
Mildred Pérez, director of the stadium, then warned that the rehabilitation will be “gradual” and that it would be marked by “the economic limitations suffered by the country in general, which prevents having a larger budget.” However, the official stressed her faith that, with “the will to do a little every day,” the stadium will change. “For the better,” she clarified.
The reality of the building, which once had capacity for 35,000 spectators, is different. The only thing that looks renewed in its surroundings is a billboard of Che Guevara, which stands out among the weeds. The stadium is not alone in its decline: it is accompanied by other facilities of the Pan American Park, such as the Baraguá swimming pool complex, part of the Village that would house the 5,000 visiting athletes, the 19 de Noviembre tennis courts and the Reinaldo Paseiro velodrome.
Photos from 1991 show Castro euphoric, in front of the international delegations, in the same stands that are unpainted today. The tracks where the legendary Ana Fidelia Quirós and Alberto Cuba ran are in an unacceptable state for an Olympic champion.
“A little painting today; some seats tomorrow, but nothing that solves the real problem. The Pan American Stadium is no longer going to give this country a single dollar, and they know it,” concludes the stadium worker before returning to the mat . Above the lobby door, with a smile of confidence in the future of socialism, a drawing of Tocopán – the tocororo mascot of the games – continues to welcome visitors.