“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.“
“…Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Of the 82 men crammed onto the leaky boat that shipwrecked into the island on December 2nd, 1956, no more than 20 survived the initial encounter with Batista’s army and succeeded in escaping to the Sierra Maestra mountains. Only 12 men from this group of 20 survived to see victory when on January 1st, 1959, Batista fled Cuba with an estimated $300,000,000 fortune stolen from the Cuban people. Since that time, over 638 attempts on Castro’s life have been organized on American soil.
In 1979, on a historic trip to address the UN general assembly in New York, Castro was asked about the constant need for protection:
JON ALPERT: Everybody says you always have a bulletproof vest.
PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: No.
JON ALPERT: No?
PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I will land in New York like this. I have a moral one. A moral vest. It’s strong. That one has protected me always. It’s too hot in Cuba to have a bulletproof vest.
It takes a strong stomach to be here sometimes. There’s the food situation that threatens to give you a fixed address over a toilet for a couple days at any moment and then there’s the fact that most of the time you feel like you’re trespassing on a lot of people living one man’s broken dream whether they want to or not.
Yuriorkis Gamboa, a gold medalist from the Athens Olympic games, sold his gold medal to buy food and presents at his daughter’s first birthday party. He’d buy trinkets when he was fighting abroad and sell them back home to support his family. He asked for a 10 dollar per diem from the Cuban team while training in Venezuela. They refused. Shortly after, in 2006, he defected.
Just before I arrived in Cuba I’d watched an interview with him in Miami driving around in a Ferrari with his shirt off.
I found out at the gym yesterday how much he got for that gold medal: $150.
Every face listening to that figure – the Cuban children, Hector the ex-champion coach, Brea telling me, foreigners training for the 2008 Olymipcs – had a different expression reacting to the news. But nobody says anything. It’s left hanging, just like everything else. What else is new?
After an all night bender Jake Lamotta was asked by a companion, “Is that the moon or the sun?”
“How do I know?” Jake responded. “I don’t live around here.”
I know he feels.
If you want to know what boxing means here you don’t need to go to the fights to find out. Every face in town, no matter where you are, can answer the question:
It’s another struggle for anyone outside Cuba to understand the stakes involved for a boxer living here.
A song writer named Sammy Cahn was asked which came first, the words or the music? “The check,” Sammy replied.
That punchline isn’t part of the equation if you stay. Which is its own punchline.
“There are no jokes. The truth is always the funniest joke of all.”
That $150 Gamboa got for his medal is 6 months salary for a doctor or lawyer. A lot of the lawyers in town drive cabs in order to earn a living. They certainly don’t earn it with cab fare either.
Then again, there isn’t anywhere in the world where the recruitment of boxing talent is more fierce than here. They comb every inch of the island looking for a spark. Part of the reason they work so hard to find talent is that there isn’t anywhere in the world where the fighters fight harder. To be a trainer of elite boxers in Cuba requires seven years of schooling. You might make the same money as someone sweeping a gutter turning out several world champions who could have made hundreds of millions anywhere else. Whose the joke on?
If you go to Trejo or Kid Chocolate and meet some of the children boxers training they’ll tell you if another American invasion took place tomorrow they’d be ready to fight American soldiers in defense of Cuba. They’ll tell you all Cubans would look forward to giving their lives for the place Christopher Columbus called the most beautiful thing human eyes have ever seen. They’d welcome another Bay of Pigs…
And, slack-jawed, while you’re remembering what Gore Vidal said about how the true crop of current American geniuses must be located in American History classrooms across the country what with American History being repeatedly voted the most boring subject by American students and since anyone who could make American History boring must be a fucking genius, the Cuban kid in front of you grins: “Look what the gringos first Bay of Pigs did for us and Fidel in the eyes of the world? Patria o muerte!“
Before you can catch your breath another kid will come over and tug at your shirt and tell you to keep an eye on HBO for him fighting in Vegas down the road: “You better watch! One day I’ll have a Ferrari like Gamboa and all the blond bitches will be begging to ride with the champ with the top down on my car. Keep your eye out for me in Gringolandia.”
Las Vegas gets brought up from time to time over here. Less than Florida, probably more than New York. Las Vegas and Havana both had the American Dream’s hand up their skirts, they just reacted a little differently to the touch. Whatever differences there are, not much turns either city on more than boxing. Whatever divides them, it’s funny how Communism and Capitalism happen to jerk off to the same brand of porn.
“You better watch!” the kid warns me again. “I’ll be on HBO one day. MGM Grand in Vegas. Watch me!”
My coach overhears this request, shakes his head, and starts his stopwatch. “Brinicito, leedle by leedle. Wazz a mattah? Eez theez too complicado or whaa?”
I’m afraid for my little brain it is, Brea.
A boxer is always a conman. Great fighters are always great liars. If you knew how they were feeling or what they were thinking you could find them. You could hit them.
I feel like a very easy target here.
But I get into the ring and shadowbox with a few Cuban kids. We’re on our toes dancing around on the sweat and blood stains left from the afternoon’s sparring session. We each have a corner of our own. The old ring creaks and moans under our feet. Brea yells for another kid to squish the cigarette under his back toe when he throws his right hand. He’s not turning it properly. Hector gestures to flick his cigarette into the ring to help the education along.
Some pretty Italian girls enter the gym and take photos of us. Hector introduces himself and offers to show them around. He drops some Italian on them. They respond in Spanish, “Where did you learn?” “I was an Olympic champion…” Brea’s smiling and corrects, “Twice Olympic champion!” Hector nods gravely, “It’s true.”
Every Cuban needs their own sitcom.
I take the long way home along the sea. The kid’s warning about not missing him fighting on HBO gnaws at me as the fisherman along the Malecón wave hello. An old fisherman with a mustache casts a hunk of bread just over the crest of the last wave that breaks against the wall. A fish bites quickly and he reels it in and removes his shoe in order to clunk it on the temple and drop it wriggling into the pale nestled between his ankles. He rigs another hook and relights his peso “torpedo” cigar.
Beyond the fisherman’s line are some cruise ships headed for the harbor. Beyond them are the warships. The fisherman isn’t paying attention to either. His eyes are the line while the death rattle of the fish in the bucket peters out.
When I was 20 I met The Old Man and the Sea in Cojimar. Gregorio Fuentes was over a hundred and still puffing away on a cigar and refusing to wear glasses. He looked healthy and alert sitting in his chair with photographs and paintings of himself everywhere. The gift shop-feel of the living room didn’t seem to be his idea, but he wasn’t embarrassed or distracted by it either. He was giving his time for the $15 and bottle of rum you were expected to bring. The money went toward the Revolution, the rum stayed on the premises.
The day before the staff had let me inside Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula. After the revolution they’d converted Hemingway’s home into the Hemingway Museum. 8000 books on the premises along with his typewriter. Everything in the house left untouched since he’d left it. It felt as if he could come back through the door at any moment. Havana’s marina had been named after him. Why not? He’d donated the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer to the Cuban people. The Pulitzer had been stolen from the church were it was kept. I think somebody returned it. The room where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Ambos Mundos was roped off. There were old women I’d talked to who had met him as teenagers. Apparently he wasn’t stingy with compliments for pretty girls.
I knew that Gregorio Fuentes, who could fish before he could walk, had stopped fishing for the remainder of his life the day he found out Hemingway had committed suicide in 1961. I knew it, but I can’t say it really prepared me all that well for feeling it in Gregorio’s living room with him sitting there.
I told him the day before I’d seen his old boat the Pilar for the first time and he nodded. “Isn’t she beautiful? I don’t think she’s very happy away from the sea.”
Which was true. I don’t think Pilar had much interest parading herself around as a centerfold beside the swimming pool in Hemingway’s backyard.
The last thing I ever said to him before he died was asking him why he thought Hemingway had such an effect on people. Especially Cubans.
His eyes looked like a cracked, half-frozen puddle. He stared at me and puffed on his cigar for a while.
Gregorio put down the cigar and cleared his throat before saying, and smiling with that century old face, “He knew who he was.”
It was late before I got back to my neighborhood. At night conversation and arguments and music are everywhere with the percussive slap of dominoes hitting the table from endless porches of Cuban homes. It’s one of my favorite sounds at night.
When I finally got to my street I was told there had been a riot at the baseball stadium and the army was called out. They’d be there for the next game tomorrow so everybody wanted to go.
Four generations of Jesus males were still playing baseball in front of their home when the woman of The House of Jesus called their name, “HEYYYZOOOOOOOOOO!” and they all pleaded in perfect chorus for five minutes more action.
The youngest Jesus noticed me and went into shock pointing behind me, “NANCY!”
Before I could break my neck looking everybody on the block cracked up.
Nancy is the most peeled-off-a-cigar-box-beautiful woman in all of Cuba by consensus and nobody has ever seen her out of jogging pants—except her husband. It adds to her majesty. Nancy is also married to a beloved man with a heart condition and is well aware of my willingness and desire to speed that tragic condition along so that I may comfort her. Nancy goes out of her way to avoid me and the rest of the neighborhood goes out of their way to test a Pavlovian reflex by calling her name around me and pointing over my shoulder. It’s a tough one to inoculate against.
“Why so sad?” the youngest Jesus asks me.
His father comes up behind him and scoops him up onto his shoulders. I made the mistake of confusing his wife for his mother when I first got to this neighborhood. He made a face like he was going to slash my throat until teasing out a smile and went inside to tell her and everyone laughed.
“Brinicito, joo need luvv.”
“I know it,” I said, gazing over to Nancy’s house.
“Nancy is married.”
“Her husband could be the babysitter for our kids.”
“Joo need luvv.”
“Listen, I know some nice prostitutes. My wife has hidden all their phone numbers from me, but I’m sure she’d be happy to let you see them. Let me go inside and ask her…MAMI!”