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Despite its economy, Cuba is formidable at Pan Am Games

THE economic crisis gripping Cuba has shaken its formidable sports program. Yet, in spite of cuts in everything from food to equipment, Cuban athletes have shown they are still among the best in the world.

Cuba will fall far short of repeating its performance in the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, where for the first time it beat the United States in the gold-medal count, 140-130. (That unprecedented gold-medal haul by Cuba can be explained in part by its home-team advantage since it was able to field athletes in every sport.)

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But in Mar del Plata, Argentina, the Cubans are well on their way to bettering their gold and total medals count at Indianapolis in 1987 (75 and 175) and Caracas, Venezuela, in 1983 (79 and 175), giving them their highest totals outside Havana. Cuba was in striking distance of those numbers with boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and judo -- veritable gold mines for the Cubans -- still to come. The Games end Sunday.

The Cuban delegation sticks firmly to the official line that sports have not been hurt by the economic crisis. The vice president of Cuba's Council of Ministers, Jose Ramon Fernandez, said his country ''moved mountains'' in order to bring a competitive team to Mar del Plata.

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