HAVANA, JAN. 17 -- Everywhere you look in this city of 2 million, you see the strange mixture of construction, confusion and confidence. As stadiums sit unfinished, as citizens go without, Cuban President Fidel Castro brashly proclaims his nation will fulfill its promise to the athletes of the Western Hemisphere and the 11th Pan American Games will go on.

There are 6 1/2 months to go to the Pan Am Games -- the quadrennial, multinational sports competition is scheduled for Aug. 2-18 -- and a poor island nation is struggling to keep itself afloat politically, economically and athletically.

Clusters of workers lift rocks and push wheelbarrows under the hot noontime sun east of the city, trying to get the athletes' village, or the main stadium, or the swimming pool, ready in time. Theirs looks like an almost impossible task, even though Pan Am Games officials -- and Castro himself -- vow it will be done.

"The details are not going to be finished, but the stadiums will be," Castro told a visiting delegation from the U.S. Olympic Committee, according to USOC President Robert Helmick.

"He said it's not going to be cleaned up," Helmick said. "He used the word details. I presumed by that he meant landscaping and the pile of rocks that you saw in front. But he feels that the basic structures will be here."

Cuba talks a good game, but right now, it's hard to imagine a less inviting place to stage one of the more important sporting events in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba is a nation with a long list of rationed foods, long lines at the markets and shortages of energy, transportation and household goods.

It is a country that has slashed bus, train and taxi service due to dwindling Soviet fuel shipments. It is a nation that continues to be isolated by U.S. policies, a communist nation standing virtually alone in a vastly changed world.

But, where sports are concerned, all things are possible. From Castro down, officials sound thrilled at the prospects of hosting thousands of athletes from North, Central and South America. While foreign journalists shake their heads in wonder at Havana's rudimentary telephone system, officials seem undaunted by the demanding telecommunications challenges ahead.

When reporters ask why stadiums are being built while so much hardship is so apparent, Castro and Pan Am Games leaders are ready with their answers.

"The Pan American Games are an international commitment our country entered," Castro said in an impromptu news conference Wednesday night. "So it is a sacred commitment that we have to honor, and we are a country of honor. The Pan American Games enjoy high priority and that's why we have preserved our commitment."

No one has provided a figure of what these Games are costing Cuba, except for Castro's estimation of "millions." Fifteen stadiums or arenas are either being built or extensively refurbished for the Games' 31 sports.

A village eight blocks long of 55 buildings and 1,473 apartments also is under construction. After the Games, 6,500 people will move in, some of them the very workers who built them. This is a now-common tradition for cities hosting the Olympics and the like.

"We are putting in facilities to rejuvenate areas," said Rafael Almeida, who is in charge of construction for the Pan American Games. The velodrome (cycling arena) is the first ever for Cuba and will be used by its cyclists; the pool will be the first heated indoor pool on the island.

"The leadership said we would build facilities with or without the Pan American Games," said Renaldo Gonzalez Lopez, the secretary general of COPAN, the organizing committee for the Games. "We had no sports facilities in this area at all. The important thing is not the cost, but the preparation for our national teams and the existence of recreation facilities for the people. These facilities are not being built for the Pan American Games."

A tour of the stadium sites is a melancholy trip. The pool arena (natatorium) has no pool; the Estadio Panamericano (track and field stadium) has no track. They are coming, by May, officials say.

The Estadio Panamericano has the look of the Roman Coliseum. Unfortunately, it looks the way the Coliseum looks today. It's a 35,000-seat stadium for track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies. Officials say it is "96 percent" finished, but, to the untrained eye, it appears about half complete.

Seats at one end are caving in and chunks of concrete newly installed for stairs and aisles already have fallen away.

But the nation's top athletes are trying to help. Javier Sotomayor, the world-record holder in the high jump, said he has pulled six hours of duty in the Estadio Panamericano, moving bricks and cement. It's unfathomable to imagine a top U.S. athlete being exposed to such duty, but Sotomayor thought nothing of it.

"I wasn't worried because it wasn't that hard," he said.

All athletes are required to help when they can, said Ana Quirot, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters. She has served 30 hours in the stadium, mostly lifting rocks.

They are not alone. Lopez said 8,000 to 10,000 people are working on the Pan Am Games sites, including 1,500 in the stadium. Some are not construction workers but professionals such as professors and teachers pulled out of their jobs to work on the Games.

When a tour of U.S. journalists came through the stadium, only a couple of dozen workers were seen. Lopez said the reason was they work several shifts.

More important to the Cubans right now is that the raw materials to finish the stadiums are in the country, and all have been paid for.

"The main expenses for the Pan American Games have already been made," Castro said. "Everything that we had to purchase for the Pan American Games is already here and it has already been paid. If we had to face a greater scarcity of fuel, we still will continue to work. The materials are here."

Castro, 64, is such a sports fan that he has a satellite dish at his home, given to him by Ted Turner, to watch U.S. baseball games. These Games are vitally important to him, just as Cuban baseball and boxing triumphs in international arenas bring him great joy. The world has changed since Cuba was given the Games more than four years ago, but Castro seems to remain the same.

"When we entered into the contract {for the Pan Am Games}, the problems had not broken out in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and of course there was not a Gulf crisis at that time," he said. "But we are meeting our commitments."

The relative lack of preparation does not cause grave concern among U.S. officials, who send the "B" team to the Pan Am Games in some sports, including track and field and swimming.

"This is not untypical of the Pan American Games," Helmick said. "I say that in a positive way. It's a very big competition for Havana or Indianapolis or many cities and we recognize it's not going to be the quality of the Olympics or a world championship. But a lot of it is going to be the quality of a lot of the competitions our teams participate in throughout the world."