HAVANA (Reuters) - For all the shouting and nose-to-nose confrontations going on, unsuspecting visitors to Havana's Parque Central might think they had walked into a brawl or a counter-revolution.
"Lie, lie, liar!" a youngish man in dreadlocks bellows.
"You don't know anything!" shouts back another, dressed in what would be business clothes except for the white high-top tennis shoes.
"Liar!" comes the response at a volume not really necessary from a distance of two inches.
The in-your-face, high-decibel shouting match might be about love or politics in another place, but here in the park's famous Esquina Caliente, or Hot Corner, the topic almost always under discussion is baseball, Cuba's national obsession.
Every day, all day, dozens of baseball fans, mostly men, gather in the tree-shaded park in central Havana to talk about their beloved "pelota," as baseball is called here, in animated conversations that usually appear more heated than they are.
The verbal jousting may be about the worth of a particular player or a comparison of the participants' favorite teams, or whether Cuba can win the World Baseball Classic this month.
At any given moment, several debates can be going on, in a free flow of expression not possible everywhere in Cuba.
People come and go, moving from one discussion to another, leaning in to hear above the din that at times sounds like a riot because the ethos here is not conciliation, but disagreement, usually jocular and often delivered with philosophical flair.
One young man postulates that Cuba has enough good pitching to win the world classic, a competition among national teams starting on March 5. But he is quickly rebuffed by an old-timer wearing a Chicago Cubs cap who says baseball officials had tried but failed to select the best candidates for the squad.
"My friends," he said, his finger in the air to cap off an almost Shakespearean soliloquy, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
An unwritten rule at Esquina Caliente, the name of which comes from baseball slang for third base, is that disputes, no matter how heated, do not turn into a fight.
Debaters may get in each other's face, but they don't come to blows because the point is less about resolution than to simply have one's say, a privilege in a country where free speech has it limits.
"Here you can express yourself. Here, in this place," said Lejuan Mirado, 35, pointing to the ground to emphasize that he meant only in Esquina Caliente.
While baseball talk dominates, participants sometimes veer into more controversial themes.
One group standing near the statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti that dominates the park debated whether communist-led Cuba was right to send troops to help Angola fight South African troops in the 1970s and 1980s. One debater said the Cuban soldiers had essentially been mercenaries.
"All those who defend a country that is not theirs are mercenaries," he said to an Angola veteran. "You did not have to defend Angola, you had to say 'I won't go.'"
"Then Che (Guevara) was a mercenary?" the veteran asked, referring to the Argentine who fought alongside former leader Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution.
"Fidel never accepted him," the Angola critic shouted, drawing a collective groan of disapproval from the crowd, which quickly moved on to other discussions.
Police presence appears to be no heavier than normal for Cuba, which local baseball expert Ismael Sene attributed to Cuban officials, normally wary of too much free speech, respecting the tradition of Esquina Caliente.
"They leave it alone. It's been there many years, it's a tradition," he said.
PRIDE AND NATIONALISM
While the Esquina Caliente in Havana is the best known, there are other forums in the Cuban capital and around the country.
They began in the late 1970s, according to Sene, when a Havana magazine editor suggested his readers gather to discuss baseball at a street corner in the city's Vedado district. The informal forums quickly spread from there.
Their popularity reflected Cuba's fanaticism for the game that from its beginnings on the island has been inextricably intertwined with Cuban pride and nationalism.
After the game was brought from the United States in the 1860s, independence-minded locals embraced it as a form of protest against their Spanish colonial rulers, who wanted their subjects to take up bullfighting and viewed their adoption of the American sport with well-founded suspicion.
Baseball remains in the political realm in Cuba, where the Cuban national team is a global amateur powerhouse and, by extension, a promotional tool for the island's socialist system.
But for the men at the Esquina Caliente, politics is secondary.
They speak proudly of the Cuban team, with its collection of Olympic gold medals and amateur baseball titles. But they also closely follow Cuban players like Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez and Livan Hernandez who defected to the United States to play in the Major Leagues.
"One always feel proud because they are Cuban," said Rogelio Hernandez, 44, who is not related to the ballplayers.
And despite 50 years of bitter relations between Cuba and the United States, many Cubans are fans of U.S. baseball. At Esquina Caliente, they wear baseball caps with the insignia of their favorite teams, the most popular being the free-spending New York Yankees.
Cuba's fervor for the game transcends all, even family ties, Hernandez explained.
"I told my wife that baseball is the mistress from which I will never part. It's a passion, a very powerful passion," he said.