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Hot Spot

Technology is allowing Cubans to reconnect with their sports heroes abroad and also offering them a deeper glimpse into the world beyond their shores
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AS AFTERNOON bled into evening, a cluster of men gathered in Plaza de la Revolución in northern Havana. In another era they might have been massed here for a speech by El Jefe Máximo himself. But on an ordinary Wednesday last month, the allure was something else: a fully functioning Wi-Fi hot spot.

It's increasingly common for Cubans to own a smartphone, but almost no one can afford full Internet access. At this online oasis, however, the men stared down at their three-inch screens. Some were watching Game of Thrones, others were FaceTiming relatives on distant shores. But most were feeding their sports jones. Barcelona was a few days from playing Real Madrid in a key La Liga match. The Cavaliers and the Warriors were beginning their NBA postseason runs. Aroldis Chapman, who grew up across the island, was starting his second stint as the Yankees' closer.

Fidel Castro may have died last November, ending a reign that began in 1959, but with his younger bother, Raul, on in relief since 2008, plenty of signifiers remain from the revolution. There is the crushing poverty, visited upon citizens who make roughly $40 a month from their public jobs. There is the fleet of 1950s cars that clog the streets, monuments to both a decades-long trade embargo and to Detroit craftsmanship. There is also a deep national love of sports.

This was by design. As Fidel once put it, "Sport is the outcome of the revolution. Look at what's going on in many other places, where sport is corrupted and being destroyed. No one will be able to destroy the accomplishments we have made in sport." Post-revolution, this island nation of 11.4 million—roughly the same as Ohio—that has long been famous for material deprivation has minted 71 Olympic gold medalists. In his excellent book Pitching Around Fidel, SI's S.L. Price writes of Cuba's staging of the 1991 Pan Am Games. The athletes themselves had to shovel dirt and stack cinderblocks to make sure structures were completed on time. The buildings were finished for the opening ceremonies, and Cuba's sports machine—and by extension, Cuba itself—was glorified.

But just as sports played a role in Cuba's revolution, they now play a part in Cuba's evolution. With an assist from the unstoppable force that is technology, sports provides a window into life beyond the island. Drive around the country and you'll see Arsenal banners and Dodgers caps and Warriors jerseys. Tele Rebelde, a Cuban television network devoted almost entirely to sports, lets viewers know that Sergio García won the Masters and that Aaron Hernandez ended his life.

And sports provides a rare example of international trade. More often (and less perilously) than ever, Cuban athletes are exporting themselves. We know about Chapman and fellow big leaguers Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes. But it's not just happening in baseball. Yoel Romero, a Cuban freestyle wrestler who won silver at the 2000 Olympics, defected to Germany in '07 to train in a growing sport, mixed martial arts. Now, at 40, he is a UFC star.

Once considered traitorous, these defections are resented by only the most hidebound. The best Cuban athletes are now expected to leave the island in search of the top competition, top opportunity and, yes, top dollar. And while they may never hear cheers from the citizens of their native land—with rare exceptions, defectors cannot return until they've been gone for eight years—they're supported lustily by their homeland from afar.

The common denominator of sports continues to be used as a fulcrum for relations. Name a sport and it's likely someone has made a goodwill trip. Especially since diplomatic ties with the U.S. were restored in 2015, everyone from Floyd Mayweather to Tommy Lasorda has posed for selfies with the local citizenry. (I went as part of a Tennis Channel delegation that included Jim Courier and Martina Navratilova.)

What is the impact of combining the slowly shifting political and economic climate with the quickly shifting exposure to international sports? When Cuba's legion of sports fans see thousands of folks in the state-of-the-art stadiums availing themselves of free Internet ... and do the math on the wages of, say, Cespedes, who will make more in a game for the Mets than a Cuban doctor will in a lifetime ... when they see examples of free enterprise ... might that inspire some Monday morning quarterbacking of Communist orthodoxy?

Head east from Old Havana and you'll run across the site of those 1991 Pan Am Games. You can't help but be struck by the crumbling facades and the pock-marked asphalt tracks. But you would see such decrepitude in Rio or Sochi too. More telling about the changes in the offing in Cuba was this question for us from a local as we walked the grounds: "If you're American, tell me this," he asked in English. "Who wins MVP, Harden or Westbrook?"

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