N. Y. Daily News
June 28, 2004

Cuba hometown can't cheer hero

PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA - At Yankee Stadium, Jose Contreras' newly free family gleefully watched him pitch yesterday in the U.S. for the first time.
Here, in the hurler's hometown, it was just another Sunday.

The people of Pinar Del Rio slept in and took it easy on what for most is their only day off in this working-class city 120 miles west of Havana.

"While Contreras is off having a good time with his family, nobody knows about it in Pinar," said a student. "We don't get that kind of information."

In fact, many people were still learning by word of mouth that Contreras' wife and two daughters slipped out on a smuggler's boat a week before.

Chivatos - government snitches - yesterday swarmed all over the disheveled apartment building that Contreras' loved ones left behind.

But in the rest of town, it was a typical Sunday. Women raced on bicycles to bodegas and El Fuego, a department store that closes at noon.

Men, many of whom were off from La Conchita, a factory that makes sweets, marmalades and other foods, broke out cans of Crystal, one of Cuba's national beers.

The cool suds were a relief from the stifling heat but no substitute for enjoying a cold one at Yankee Stadium while watching Contreras take the mound.

The children of Pinar enjoyed the end of their weekend away from studies. Youngsters frolicked in parks while teens played baseball and soccer. Others stood for an hour to buy ice cream, while some took in a matinee movie.

Many youths flocked to Pinar's cabarets and dance halls. One of the most notorious is called La Placita.

"They have many fights. People get hurt there a lot," said the student, whose skin was burned from riding around town on a bicycle, the only means of transportation for many.

Even if their neighbors could share the Contreras' joy, it would not erase the problems that have besieged most Cubans living under Castro's oppressive rule and suffering from the effects of the U.S. embargo.

Making things worse is a drought that has threatened crops.

"It's a very difficult time in Pinar Del Rio right now," said the owner of a paladar, a private restaurant that tries to cater to tourists who pay in dollars. "We've had a drought for a long time, and the power goes out every day because of the heat. It is something one gets used to, but that doesn't mean it is easy."

A plantation worker shrugged off the tough times when he learned Contreras was pitching, with his family there to see him.

The worker was looking forward to seeing the game soon - courtesy of a videotape recorded off an illegal satellite dish connection.

"I love the Yankees, and I love Contreras," said the worker, who regularly wears a Yankees cap. "I wish them both a lot of success."