Excerpted from Brin-Jonathan Butler's new Kindle Single, A Cuban Boxer's Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro's Traitor to American Champion, which is available now on Amazon. Annotations from the author appear throughout. This story originally appeared at Sports on Earth.
The president of Ecuador greets Fidel with the gift of a rare Galapagos tortoise, informing the dictator 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."
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 five, Elian Gonzalez and his mother, along with twelve 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 Straits. 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 Florida Straits. 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 prison either. Instead, Vinent began to train 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 Fidel Castro. 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 food 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 fuck 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 eleven 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 arrested. 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 Trejo. 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 police 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, five-foot five-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 …"
Brin-Jonathan Butler is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. His work has been published in The Classical, The Rumpus, and Salon. You can buy the Kindle single from which this piece was excerpted on Amazon.