News and Facts about Cuba

A CUBAN BOXER’S JOURNEY

June 2, 2014

A CUBAN BOXER’S JOURNEY
By Brin-Jonathan Butler

“The of Ecuador greets Fidel with the gift of a rare Galapagos
tortoise, informing the that they can live to nearly 200 years.
Fidel accepts the pet, then turns to his aide and says: “That’s the
problem with pets. You get attached to them and they die on you.
–Miami joke

My first trip to Havana was in February of 2000, in the midst of the
Elian Gonzalez fiasco. This time, what was referred to as “political
kiddie porn” entered into the civil war fought across 90 miles of ocean.
At the age of 5, Elian Gonzalez and his mother, along with 12 other
passengers, had left Cuba on a small aluminum boat. Tragically the
boat’s faulty engine had died after they encountered a storm while
attempting to cross the Florida Straights. Only Gonzalez and two other
passengers managed to survive the journey — they were discovered
floating at sea, and were saved by two fisherman. The fisherman handed
the survivors over to the US Coast Guard and all hell broke loose on
both sides of the Florida Straights. It turned out Elian’s mother had
taken Elian from the boy’s father in Cuba, without his knowledge or
permission. After some negotiation at the highest levels of government
in the US and Cuba, Elian would be sent back to Cuba in June. Elian was
yet another political feather in his cap for Fidel against the United
States.

On the flight over I was reading Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into
the Heart of Cuban Sport by S.L. Price. Each elite athlete profiled in
the book encountered the same, hopelessly impossible decision as every
other Cuban, only with a lot more money being offered to escape. Where
Teofilo Stevenson had rejected five million dollars in the 1970s, the
going rate offered to Felix Savon, Cuba’s latest heavyweight destroyer,
was in the neighborhood of 20 million to defect to America and fight
Mike Tyson. Even the act of writing a book exploring the ambiguity of
that choice had caused Price to be banned from ever returning to Cuba.
“You have penetrated an impenetrable system,” he was told by security
agents. The bombshell of the book was Cuban boxer Hector Vinent, a
two-time Olympic champion as Guillermo Rigondeaux was soon to become,
confessing to Price his desire to escape. No Cuban athlete, in Cuba, had
ever done this on the record before. Yet Vinent never managed to escape.
Maybe because he never tried in the first place was the only reason he
wasn’t thrown in either. Instead, Vinent began to children
to box at one of Cuba’s oldest boxing gyms. Two days after my arrival, I
met Vinent at his gym where he earned less than $20 a month. He offered
to train me for six dollars a day under the table, some portion of which
was skimmed off the top by those who oversaw the gym.

Years later I had the opportunity of asking Price about what first drew
him to Cuba. Price looks like Jimmy Stewart and has the voice of Daniel
Stern narrating The Wonder Years. In manner and presence, his warmth and
generosity of spirit remind you a great deal of what foreigners love
about Americans. Yet Price shook his head and confessed if there was
anywhere in the world he could afford a second home, it would be in
Havana. He quoted a key scene in Lawrence of Arabia by way of explanation:

“‘What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the
desert?’ Lawrence answers him, ‘It’s … clean.’ The thing about Cuba is
that it’s dirty. It’s not clean. And the relations between the families
in Miami and the families in Havana, the relations between the families
back and forth, they aren’t clean. The relations between the people who
go back and forth between the two cities are not clean. It’s dirty. And
I don’t mean dirty like filthy or corrupt, although all that is there. I
mean it’s gray. It’s not black and white. It’s not easy. You will go
there and all your preconceptions will be upset and if you’re any kind
of human being you will allow them to be upset. There’s no where on
earth like it.”

When you first arrive in Cuba it’s hard not to wonder what Shakespeare
would have done with a character like . Then it doesn’t take
long before you realize the better question is what Fidel Castro would
have done with Shakespeare. Guidebooks and legions of tourists warn you
that Cuba is frozen in time, but Cuba had been reeling for years. After
the collapse of the Soviet Union and their subsidies to Cuba, the choice
Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon had made rejecting millions had become
much harder for Hector Vinent. Fidel called this dire time in Cuba’s
history a “special period.” As blackouts and shortages became
commonplace and desperation grew, Vinent’s growing motivation to leave,
compared to champions past, reflected the new realities and concerns all
Cubans were confronted with.

In 2007, I met Rigondeaux at Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo in Havana
not long after his first failed attempt at defecting in Brazil. At
Trejo, the outdoor gym where I returned nearly every year to train under
Hector Vinent, two or three vaguely sinister-looking old women guarded
the entrance from tourists. There were different sets of these old
women, but they always reminded me of the Macbeth witches. The women
were nestled up against a wall of photographs inventorying the great
Cuban champions Trejo has produced. While each boxer’s face hanging on
display belonged to a former world or Olympic champion, you quickly
remembered that they were all even more famous on the island for
rejecting millions of dollars. Nothing drove the Cuban f– you home more
to Americans than demonstrating that Cubans fought for something more
valuable than money. While the witches spoke about this information for
free, naturally there was a charge of a couple dollars to document any
of this fascinating legacy with your camera. If you had the money to
pay, lately you could document something else too. Over the last couple
years the wall of champions had become an even more exclusive club. More
athletes than at any other time since the Revolution had responded to
the siren song of the American Dream and risked everything, including
their own lives, to escape.

Past the entrance, the sun blazed down and there were rows and rows of
bleachers behind and in front of you. For warm-ups, the students raced
up and down the bleachers and their paces were as loud as an express New
York subway until the coaches whistled them on to the next task. Car
tires were set against an iron railing for boys to practice their
combinations, snapping their punches. In place of bags, sacks were hung
next to the tires. A tractor tire lay in the shade under the far side
bleachers where an instructor swung a sledge hammer over one shoulder
and then the other, plunging the hammer down and showing a kid the
proper technique of incorporating the entire body with each swing and
the mechanics of the weight transfer involved. The ring was the
centerpiece of the gym, its canvas blood- and sweat-stained with a
little neighborhood mud smeared here and there. There was a lucky child
who lived next door, on the second floor of his building, who routinely
spied with his friends on the action below from his window.

This last trip to Havana to train at Rafael Trejo, more than any other
I’d had, whispers of sympathy were everywhere across Havana for those
abandoning their lives in Cuba for an opportunity anywhere else. A
hushed referendum was building with each high-profile defection. Maybe
this was because it was also my first trip to Cuba since Castro had
stepped down from power with a mysterious illness, the illness itself an
official state secret. As usual, all the predictions of societal
collapse or popular uprising were false, yet everywhere citizens
nervously watched and waited. As with the rest of the world, all 11
million inhabitants on the island could feel the Castro brothers near
five-decade hold over Cuba coming to an end. Unlike the rest of the
world, however, few bothered to speculate as to what came next. They
knew full well who held the guns. They were not surprised riots never
ensued after Fidel stepped down. The prevailing sentiment remained the
sense that the treasure of their country continued to rust in the wrong
hands. The joke on Fidel Castro had always been that if Spanish lacked a
future tense the man who could give a speech for seven hours straight
would be silenced. What subject was there for him to discuss besides
promises? And now nobody was sure what the future promised.

Only a few months before, I had heard that the new captain of the Cuban
national team, since Savon had stepped down, two-time Olympic gold
medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, had attempted to defect in Brazil with
teammate Erislandy Lara and had been . This amounted to the
highest profile boxing defection in Cuban history, unavoidably
symbolizing a massive turning point in not just Cuban sport, but Cuban
society on the whole. Rigondeaux’s attempt at escape had become an
international news item and a national soap opera regularly appearing on
Cuban television. Castro himself had personally spoken out in the state
newspaper calling Rigondeaux a traitor and “Judas” to his people. “They
have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team,”
Castro wrote in Granma. “An athlete who abandons his team is like a
soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.”
Compounding the significance and ambiguity of Rigondeaux’s situation was
boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson, probably the second most famous Cuban
in the world for the fortune he turned down to leave, defending
Rigondeaux. “They are not traitors,” Stevenson declared. “They slipped
up. People will understand. They’ve repented. It is a victory that they
have returned. Others did not.”

While Jimmy Cannon once called boxing “the red light district of
sports,” Rafael Trejo resided in what was formerly Cuba’s most famous
red light district. One of the largest funeral processions in Cuban
history was for the notorious pimp Yarini Ponce de Leon, who was shot
dead in a duel in the area. In Old Havana, the street names that
pre-date the revolution offer a glimpse into the city’s state of mind at
that time. You might have known someone who lived on the corner of Soul
and Bitterness, Solitude and Hope or Light and Avocado. When things
changed in Cuba, the names were changed as well, and new signs went up.
Ask for directions from a local today, though, and you’re likely to hear
the old names. Those names meant something personal and not easily
forgotten to the people who lived on those streets. Avocado Street was
named for the avocado that grew in the garden of a convent. Hope Street
was named for a door in the city wall before it was torn down. Soul
Street refers to the loneliness of the street’s position in the city.
Sometimes these streets lead to dead ends; others lead to the doorsteps
of cathedrals constructed with the explicit intention of turning music
into stone.

While guidebooks might tell you that time collapsed here, another theory
says that in Latin America, all of history co-exists at once. In 1958,
Graham Greene wrote, “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that
turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt.” Yet this beauty the people
of Cuba unquestionably possess walks hand-in-hand with their pain.
Whomever you might encounter in this place lacking the capacity to walk
or even stand for whatever reason will inevitably remain convinced they
can dance. When Castro was put on trial in 1953 and asked who was
intellectually responsible for his first attempt at insurrection, he
dropped the name of the poet Jose Marti. From what I’d seen of it, the
revolution’s hold on Cubans looked less like poetry and more like the
term zugzwang from chess: You’re forced to move, but the only moves you
can make will put you in a worse position. Cuba had become an entire
population of 11 million people with every iron in the fire doubling as
a finger in a dyke.

* * *

At Trejo one afternoon, I spotted someone out of the corner of my eye
while I was training with my coach, Hector Vinent.

“Mi madre,” Hector whispered, dropping his hands slowly, looking in the
same direction as me. “It’s him.”

“Him?” I asked.

“Si,” Hector confirmed, then repeated gravely, “El.”

When any Cuban refers to Him in conversation, with little to no
information or context provided, it invariably refers to Fidel.

“Mi madre,” Hector groaned.

“Como?” I asked. “Quien?” (Who?)

Hector remained frozen. It was 100 degrees out that afternoon training
in the open air of Rafael Treo. I nudged him, but Hector wasn’t coming
to. I looked around us as the silence took hold. All the proud coaches
refused to look the problem straight-on, instead staring off from the
corners of their eyes at the entrance to the gym. A profoundly
disturbing thing you discover very quickly traveling in Cuba is that the
most dangerous person for Cubans isn’t the or even the secret
police, it’s their neighbors. Anyone can report you for anything
“outside” the revolution. Even if you haven’t done it yet. Hector
himself had been banned from boxing before he’d ever attempted escape.

So what was this?

Had Fidel died or was El paying a visit?

“It’s him,” Hector repeated, this time even softer, nodding in the
direction of the entrance. “This is very dangerous for us,”

“Como?” I asked. “Who?”

“Rigondeaux. There, hiding in the shadows.”

All I could see was a child near the entrance.

“That’s Rigondeaux? That child?”

“Claro,” Hector grunted. “That child is 27 and perhaps the greatest
boxer Cuba has ever produced. Fidel has said he will never fight again.
He has nowhere to go. Anyone in sports can no longer be seen talking to
him. We could lose our jobs. You can talk to him.”

It was as if a Cuban version of Mr. Kurtz had stepped out of his own
version Heart of Darkness to pop into the gym for a visit.

That day, back in 2007, the first time I was introduced to Guillermo
Rigondeaux Ortiz in Havana, the thing was, I had little way of knowing
who or what I was looking at. I had only seen Rigondeaux’s face not
obscured by headgear once. The trouble that evening was that his face
was instead obscured by the photograph of Fidel he was holding aloft
after having been declared the victor of a tournament. All I saw now was
a solemn, 5-foot-5-inch kid, dressed in a Nike ball cap and jeans, with
a fake Versace shirt that had the sleeves ripped off.

Without realizing it I started toward Rigondeaux. As I approached him,
in the shade under the bleachers of the entrance to Rafael Trejo, my
first impression was that his was the saddest face I had ever seen on
the island. One of the few things not in short supply in Havana is
sadness. Rigondeaux’s sadness distinguished him from his countrymen
nearly as much as his boxing pedigree.

I reached out a hand and introduced myself and he did what he could,
under the strained circumstances at the gym, to muster a smile. Up close
I noticed his right eye showed damage, slumping slightly from his left.
Rigondeaux’s attempt at a polite smile betrayed the gold grill over his
front teeth for a brief moment as he took another drag of his Popular
cigarette.

“So where did you get that gold on your teeth?” I asked him.

Rigondeaux snickered, dropped his head and smirked, taking a last long
drag on his cigarette before flicking it on the ground and stamping it
out with his sneaker. “Oh you know, I melted down both my gold medals
into my mouth. I used to fight in this place …”

* * *
A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to
American Champion will be released on June 3.

Source: The price of defection for a talented Cuban boxer. |
SportsonEarth.com : Brin-Jonathan Butler Article –
http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/77478026/cuba-boxer-guillermo-rigondeaux-journey-defection-fidel-castro#!TAZMT

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