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Fighting For Glory
By Krishen Rangi (August 21, 2004) 
Cuba’s boxing team—the world’s most dominant—is in Athens eyeing a record haul. But unlike the opponents they beat up on, Cuba’s fighters will never be allowed to turn pro. Cubans are only allowed to fight for their flag and the Revolution. But not everyone dreams of doing what is allowed.

If there had been feelings of anger or sadness or gloominess in the air I might have called the place a slum. After all, by any other definition that is what it was. But there was no need; those feelings of bitterness did not exist here. Instead there was a warmth and happiness in the air, and for whatever reason the absence of material wealth did not matter much.

I was in Central Havana, at the home of Felix Ramon, a 17-year-old whose demeanor and boxing skills reminded me of world champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr’s. Central Havana is not Miramar, where foreigners and government insiders live in palm surrounded mansions, nor is it Vedado, colloquially referred to as “New Havana” after the mob’s 1950’s Vegas-like build-up. Nothing in this concrete jungle has aged with grace, and unlike Old Havana nothing suggests renovation or restoration rank highly on anyone’s agenda. But in this land of a million contradictions—I once saw a woman puffing on a cigarette while jogging—despite conditions tailored to the side-effects of urban blight, I witnessed no symptoms—violence, drug-peddling, or homelessness—to speak of.

I had first met Felix in mid-March, about a month after arriving in Havana. I was there to learn boxing from the Cuban masters, and my trainer, Guillermo, under whose charge I worked six days a week, had introduced me to Felix as someone with enormous talent and ambition—and who dreamed of one day boxing professionally in America. Even at his precocious age Felix carried himself with an air of maturity and machismo, perhaps a natural response to his rugged surroundings.

One day Guillermo invited me to visit Felix’s family. He knew them well, having introduced Felix to the sport as a seven year old, and he proudly took credit for Felix’s success (which included 20 wins in a row, and over 80 wins in total with fewer than 10 defeats). The home was a small second story apartment, consisting of a kitchen, living room, and washroom, in a building shared by three other families. Its indoor/outdoor flavor suggested that at some point long ago a colonial masterpiece must have stood there. At the moment, though, little other than a combination of decaying concrete and rusting metal remained. The apartment was furnished with a worn sofa, black and white television, and a few small statue decorations that appeared Santeria related. There was an eatery on the street level. Felix, the youngest in the family, lived with his parents, two sisters and niece. He said his brother, ten years older, was on “La Isla”, the island south of the mainland, fulfilling his military obligation.

It was a typical Havana evening, warm and humid, and the streets were full. We entered the living room and were greeted warmly with handshakes from Felix’s dad, who sat reading the newspaper. In the background a state-produced documentary re-enacting the Bay of Pigs Invasion played. A few minutes later, Felix arrived, smiling and happy, from his girlfriend’s house, where he had spent the afternoon playing Atari. Soon his mother and one of his sisters also joined us. The family appeared happy to have guests. The reason I was there was so Guillermo could acquaint Felix’s family and myself. He had told them that perhaps I could help Felix travel to America and make it big as a boxer. They were interested, but first they wanted to get to know me.

The mood was very light, and Guillermo made light-hearted jokes at everyone’s expense. After a while Felix’s mother and sister went into the kitchen to speak. They returned and asked me if I wanted anything to drink, and I said OK. Then they returned to the kitchen and continued speaking.

After a few seconds Guillermo said to them, “No, don’t worry about it, next time. Next time.”

To help put things into context for me, Felix brought over his mother’s purse and opened it, revealing it to be empty. Grinning and unashamed, he said, “Pobre” (Poor).

Perhaps the only thing Cuban more famous than the country’s amateur boxing team is its cigars. Along with rum, salsa, and socialism, the Cuban system’s disproportional achievements and consistent excellence have melded to create its master status around the world. Since the 1972 Games in Munich, no country has come close to matching Cuba’s Olympic boxing success. Despite not sending teams to Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988 (when they followed Soviet bloc nations’ boycotts) Cuba has won 27 gold medals. Only the United States with 44 gold medals since 1904 has produced more in Olympic competition.

On a late-March morning, Guillermo and I traveled to Rancho-Boyeros to visit the Senior National Training Center, fifteen miles south of downtown Havana. Here, just a stones throw from Jose Marti International Airport, the world’s greatest amateur pugilists assembled twice daily to prepare for future battles. It was also the place where all Cuban boys—including Felix—who did not play baseball (Cuba’s national sport) hoped to be invited to train someday.

Years ago, Guillermo himself had been amongst this elite fraternity, (he said he was on his way to making the 1996 Olympic team, before a streetfight led to a three month prison sentence and suspension; in 1997 he broke his hand in a match at the world championships in Hungary) but injuries and bad luck had done him in, and into oblivion.

“In Cuba you are either the best or you are nobody,” he told me of the Cuban ethos. “There is no in between.”

A statement in big bold letters on the wall beside the ring corroborated this: "In Cuba we only love those who resist and the rest we tolerate."

While defending Olympic champions Mario Kindelan (60kgs) and Guillermo Rigondeaux (54kgs) may be Cuba’s shining stars du jour, three successive Olympic heavyweight crowns apiece have made Teofolio Stevnson (1972, 1976, 1980) and Felix Savon (1992, 1996, 2000) the two loved above all others. Their fierce patriotism and loyalty to the Revolution have been rewarded with legendary status and made them the Revolution’s centerpieces of sporting excellence. Savon reportedly once rejected $10 million offered by promoter Don King to defect to America and turn professional. His response: “What do I need $10 million for when I have the love of 11 million Cubans?”

Officials in Cuba cite the Revolution’s practice of socialism as the singular reason behind Cuba’s athletic achievements. Just as all students in Cuba are guaranteed education without cost, all children have access to sports; the best are given special treatment, better diets and full-time dedication so they can excel. The results speak for themselves: no country, per capita, has won as many Olympic medals as the Caribbean island of 11 million.

“I’ll tell you why we (Cuban boxers) are the best," Guillermo told me as we watched members of the national team warm-up. "The system provides opportunities to excel from an early age.”
|Like Communist regimes of the past, Cuban sports officials scout talent at a young age before channeling potential athletes into state-sponsored athletic schools. "I didn't choose boxing," once said Cuban defector Juan Carlos Gomez. "They chose it for me. I wanted to become a baseball player. That was always my dream. But, you know, in Cuba you are not allowed to make your own decisions."

The staples of Cuba's boxing success have always been conditioning and discipline. It’s been said Cubans fight the last round harder than the first. Said coach Alcides Sagarra, the man who handled the corners of both Stevenson and Savon, in a rare interview with non-Cuban media earlier this year: "Boxing is well suited to the Cuban character. We are brave, resolute, selfless. We have strong convictions and clear definition. We are pugnacious and we like to fight.”

Sagarra, a strict disciplinarian began coaching in 1964, along with the help of Andrei Chervorenko, a Soviet coach sent to share training techniques as a display of Communist solidarity. Sagarra’s—and the ultimately the system’s—greatest achievement soon followed: the implementation of a vision that combined Cuban rhythms of culture and music with strict Soviet training habits. The results have since been the envy of the amateur boxing world.

An elderly man I met while walking along the Malecon oceanfront, who said he often traveled to New York before the Revolution, summed up his country’s boxing best: “Cuban boxing borrows a lot from Cuban music and lifestyle. The movements are very natural and graceful, which allows the fighters to defend themselves better. Sugar Ray Robinson and Ali were like this. But today American boxing is just brute force.”
|“Our boxers do like Ali,” he said, using his hands to explain. “Fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

The first time I met Felix was impressive. I was in the ring at Complejo Deportives Ponce Carrasco in Central Havana, sparring. Guillermo, the third man in the ring, was unimpressed by my free swinging style, one he had declared predictable and tactless. He had grown impatient telling me that raw power without smarts and technique meant nothing. My opponent, a former wrestler, named Alexi outweighed me by at least 20 pounds. While he too lacked in refined skill and experience, he was nonetheless an accomplished fighter, having once won a bronze medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the World University Games. Though power punching was my forte, I thought better than to stand toe-to-toe and exchange blows—at least until he tired out a bit. So I kept my distance, and maintained a measured punch output—precisely the opposite of what Guillermo preached.

As soon as Felix walked into the gym Guillermo, frustrated, immediately summoned him into the ring and told me to watch how a properly trained Cuban boxer handles a bigger man. Since Felix did not own any boxing equipment, Guillermo asked me to hand him my gloves. Still, because Felix weighed at least 30 pounds less than the wrestler’s 165, personally, I wasn’t sure how great an idea it was.

Without so much as a stretch Felix put on the gloves and went to work. With fluid movements of head, torso, and feet, his defense alone was a rarefied sight; punches and counter-punches came in combinations from every angle, and at breathtaking speed. He seemed like a great artist, comfortably at work in his element. Though Felix never stood at a distance out of reach, his deftness and ability to dodge—his lean backward to avoid the jab was startlingly similar to Mayweather’s—made possible for him to avoid almost all incoming punches. Moreover, his skill at getting in and out when on offense left Alexi confused as to when he should mount an offense and when he should defend. Within fifteen seconds Alexi had been forced to resort to holding and roughhousing, the only thing he could do to contain the speed and surprising power of his relentless attacker.

In a place where sparring goes without mouthpieces and helmets (in part because of the lack of resources, in part because coaches and administrators believe in toughening up their fighters), it would follow, then, that Guillermo refused to break the clinch, letting the pugilists work it out for themselves. Only it didn’t happen. Alexi, older and stronger, and someone who took great pride in his fight skills, was flaming mad that someone of Felix’s stature had so easily solved him. Embarrassed, he refused to let go, and things escalated to where he got Felix in a headlock. Though Alexi was much stronger and in control of the clinch, Felix’s refusal to give in or stop fighting was no less impressive than the boxing exhibition itself. Even after Guillermo eventually stepped in and broke the two up, Felix remained fired up, hungry for more action. Like a true warrior, his desire to fight was insatiable, always there at the flick of a switch. That he lost his fake diamond-stud earring, a cherished possession, in the melee was a mere afterthought.

Felix would come by Ponce Carrasco occasionally to visit Guillermo, as did several other of his other former fighters. Guillermo, originally from Guantanamo, Cuba’s south eastern most point some 1200 kilometers away, had been summoned to Havana by the government for his technical brilliance. Each day at 5pm he would train kids just starting out in the sport, making sure they were instilled with the proper fundamentals. Felix had been one of his best, and when he was around, Guillermo often spoke of how he had molded him, using specialized techniques, like forcing him to use one hand by tying the other behind his back. Because the equipment ranged from non-existent to rudimentary, creativity and inventiveness were imperative (though in boxing, usually, the simpler, the better).

For Felix coming to Ponce Carrasco meant skipping his own training, which took place in Rancho Boyeros at a facility for top juniors from around Cuba, near the Senior National Team Training Center. He said the days he didn’t show up at school or training he would tell them he wasn’t feeling well or had a family obligation.

Felix had graduated high school the year before and enrolled in an auto mechanics program at a technical school. In Cuba, high school ends at about the age of 16, then students choose to either continue their studies at university or enter into a technical program. Twice a week Felix would attend an auto mechanics class in the morning before walking three blocks to the training facility. The other days there was no school, just training.

For someone living in Central Havana, the daily trek to Rancho-Boyeros was taxing. It meant waking up at 5.30am and walking a kilometer to the bus stop for the hour long journey. Sometimes, like he proved to me one morning by knocking on my door at 4.30am, he woke up even earlier so he could supplement his training with some running of his own. He did all this without an alarm clock or watch. (He wore a plastic watch on his wrist, but it was broken and had been for a long time; but to him, and his peers, it was a viable accessory nonetheless). He said his internal clock and his instincts were all he needed.

In terms of rigor, Felix’s training, and that of the other juniors, was no different than the seniors: preparedness, long one of the hallmarks of Cuban boxing, was the key. Unlike Americans who consider amateur boxing a means to an end, very few Cubans in their late teens or early twenties are put on senior national teams at important international competitions until they are believed to be ready, letting stronger, more experienced Cubans fight for international glory. For six hours, sometimes more, Felix would train with fighters, appraised by Cuban administrators, of similar caliber.

From a physical standpoint the emphasis was always on conditioning; running was a daily staple, always done first, as a group. Distances and speeds would vary from day to day, alternating between sprints, hills, and circuits. Later, work would be done on heavy bags and hand pads, as well as calisthenics and weights. The arrangement was bare-bones, certainly not something one would envision correlated with overwhelming international success. The gym had one wooden ring and two heavy bags for 25 boxers; there were no mirrors or speed bags, and fighters shared sparring gloves.

But what was really alarming was the lack of footwear. Though, boxing, being a poor man’s sport, requires very little equipment, few things could compare necessity-wise to shoes in Havana. Yet almost to the man, none of these great athletes had shoes that weren’t without holes, broken soles, or of the wrong size. Here, about 110 miles from Key West, anything went, and even future Olympians were forced to acquire things like clothes and shoes by alternate means.

A one hour break divided morning and afternoon training sessions during which food was served. It was only during these breaks, and once training ended, that athletes were permitted to drink water.

Healthy or unhealthy, discipline and mental toughness were valued above all else.

As I got to know him, in addition to regularly joining Guillermo and I at training in the mornings, Felix became a regular at my apartment. Since my apartment was only five blocks from his, it didn’t take much effort, and pretty soon it became his favorite place to hang out. My apartment was a casa particular, a furnished private room attached to a house. By no means was it luxurious, except perhaps by Central Havana standards. It had been approved by the government, a requirement for any non-resident, since it was the government that owned and distributed all of the country’s housing.

It quickly became clear that Felix had two distinctly different personalities. On the one hand he was remarkably mature. He knew how to behave like an adult, be polite, measured, and professional. It was the same attitude he applied when he entered the ring. On the other hand he had not forgotten how to be a kid, and could still act like any other 17-year-old. When he was in the company of his friends, and those he knew, he seemed constantly intent on being a clown. And his comedy didn’t just stop at a joke. He loved to act things out, no matter what he spoke of. One day he offered me his philosophy to life, one he said was the key to happiness, and one everyone should follow closely. He started by pretending he was lying on the beach, then stood up and pretended to be shooting baskets, and playing video games. He explained while he acted. For his closing he crumpled to the ground and said, “Life is very short, and you die really soon.”

Yet as simple and straightforward as his philosophy to life was, he seemed resigned to his fate. Despite the fact that his daily wardrobe consisted of one pair of colorful shorts, two mesh singlets, and a New York Yankees cap, mended with staples and tape at the back, and his formal wear was a pair of ¾ length white pants and a golf shirt, he never complained about anything—not that complaining would really amount to anything. Even the police’s unnecessary interrogations, standard procedure on Afro-Cubans, didn’t seem to rile him.

One evening, Guillermo, Felix and I went to the Habana Libre hotel in downtown Havana, to watch professional boxing. Homes in Havana received only three channels, all state-run, and with little exception airing solely Cuban content. Since big hotels were intended solely for foreigners, their satellites were allowed to pick up all major American channels, including HBO. Guillermo and Felix had seen pro boxing in the past, but only on bootleg video. As we approached Calle 21, one of the city’s main tourist streets, Guillermo told me to walk a few meters ahead. When I asked why, he explained that black people were not permitted to walk with foreigners, and if seen by police doing so would be asked to produce identification, a potential problem since there was a cop on every second street corner. On this occasion it turned out not to be the police that created the hassle, rather the hotel’s security guards.

Still, what surprised both Felix and Guillermo more than the disrespectful, racist treatment were the prices inside the hotel. As we settled in front of the big-screen television and began looking at the menu, neither could believe that one glass of apple juice cost $2.50 USD. Both insisted that it must be for a bottle. When they found out that in fact it was for a small glass, they insisted we leave. Neither had any money, and neither wanted to be a burden. They stayed—begrudgingly—only when I told them that this was normal, especially for a big hotel. In a country where everyone—doctor, teacher, boxing coach, construction worker—was paid $18 USD a month, such expenditure failed justification.

Though the fights, headlined by Jermain Taylor and Dominick Guinn, turned out to be pretty boring, the set-up and theatrics of professional boxing, all of which were absent from amateur boxing, excited Felix. When one of the fighters emerged from his dressing room to a 50 Cent song, Felix’s eyes widened with recognition and he looked over to me and said, “Ahh, Fee-fty Cent.” Later, Guillermo asked how much the fighters were making and I told him that Taylor and Guinn were probably making around $500,000 each. Both were awed into silence, and could only shake their heads. Even when I told them that by American standards that was good money, but nothing extraordinary, they couldn’t help putting $500,000 USD into their situation.

The look in Felix’s eye reminded me of a line Tony Montana said when he arrived in Miami. Only Felix was probably thinking, “I knock people out for fun. But for that much money, I would carve them up real nice.”

It doesn’t take two months in Cuba to see why conditions are prime for producing great boxers. Even people that go to Varadero for a week and take a tour bus to Havana for a day can catch a glimpse if they walk a little. I got mine on the first day I walked into Old Havana. There, on the ancient concrete of a side street, literally around the corner from where tourists sat dining at prices that exceeded two months of their parents wages, kids no older than 10 took turns performing multiple-rotation flips off running starts. Those not jumping judged the others, impatiently waiting their turn. None wore shoes, and few wore shirts. Were they crazy? Clearly they were blissfully oblivious to the fear of paralysis or death. The adults didn’t seem to mind, either—several were around. I stood and watched in amazement, beside a cop, for 10 minutes.

Months later when I told others what I had seen the common response was, “Oh they were street kids,” to which I invariably replied, “No, there is no such thing as ‘street kids’ in Cuba”. If there is one thing beyond criticism in Castro’s Cuba—even during its most austere economic periods—it is that all kids are cared for. In a 2002 interview on ABC’s 20/20, Fidel Castro told Barbara Walters that Cuba’s kids belonged to everyone, and that everyone took responsibility of them.

“I have five million brothers and sisters, and between us we have millions of children,” Castro said. "We love these children.”

The simple fact was that these kids had been socialized without the concept of fear. Whereas most people in more developed countries would hesitate at things like missing or broken steps on a staircase in the black of the night, or walls lined with exposed electrical wire, Cubans simply responded with their trademark care-free machismo, and lines like, “Como un hombre” (Like a man).

It was fitting, then, when young boys began boxing, it was much less fighting or confrontation than it was skill development. Avoiding contact was not a safety issue as much as it was a matter of not allowing the opponent to score. Watching kids train, it was clear that their muscle memory insulated them from superficial fear.

When Felix and Guillermo walked down the street, as a matter of fun, they would give each other powerful open handed-slaps to the chest if they noticed the other not paying attention. It was a means of keeping one another alert and sharp, and usually followed by a timely comment. Guillermo explained that when he was a kid, his trainer had done the same with him, sometimes more. He said it was important to keep kids sharp and vigilant. He also said that conditioned learning was the best kind. If the kid was slow in bringing his jab back, it was wise to give him a quick slap to the face—they learned best this way. Better to get slapped by a Cuban, literally, than get slapped figuratively in an international match, when it really mattered (and the whole country’s dignity was on the line). If the Revolution succeeded at nothing else, one thing all Cubans, especially athletes, continue to rally around, as they have for the last forty-five years, is their isolated status from the rest of the world. Cubans take great pride in their uniqueness, especially when they know the world is watching.
“It’s hard not to appreciate Cuban boxers because of their place in the world,” once said American boxing coach Larry Nates. “Winning means everything to them—they have no other choice. Then they can tell the world ‘Look who’s better now. We did things our way and we beat you’.”
This complex combination of nationalism, politics, and international competition offers Castro an ideal melting pot through which to express internationally his broader political sentiments. He loves to use Cuba’s sports teams as examples of fair play, amateurism, and beacons of unity and opportunity for all—metaphors for how he would like his socialist government to be seen. Sports also offer him a forum to condemn those he dislikes. In 2000 when Cuban boxers won only 4 gold medals, and were widely seen as victims of poor judging, Castro immediately declared an elaborate “mafia” conspiracy had been at play—his favorite word to describe the U.S. government or those aligned to it.

But whereas in the past few Cuban athletes veered from the government’s line of thinking, in large part because of the special privileges they were afforded, a somewhat quiet, cultural, shift appears underway.

“Since tourism started here in the mid 1990’s, people’s eyes have been opened to what else is out there,” Guillermo told me. “My generation, we didn’t really know, so we didn’t really care. But the kids today are different. They grew up watching tourists, and now they want what everyone else has. They don’t really care about politics. Cuba yes, but politics no.”

Not surprisingly, what appears to be changing fastest is the lure towards anything and everything American. To the under-30 crowd, Michael Jordan, Nike, and hip-hop mean everything, even if, like other closed-door countries around the world, things are several years behind. Those that speak English are seen as hip and cool, and those that do not are eager to learn. CD’s and videos of popular American rappers are passed around and shared, and those that can, dress and act like them, while the rest wish and hope that someday their turn will come.

“More and more we are shifting towards the rest of the world. There was a time not long ago when Cubans knew only Cuban music, Cuban sports, Cuban culture. Not anymore. Now walk around the streets and American music and clothes are valued more than anything.”

“Is this good or bad?” I asked.

“It depends on who you ask. Ask the kids and things are not changing fast enough. Just look at Felix.”

When Felix would come to my apartment, the first thing he would do was grab my discman. Not only did he like listening to songs by Nelly, Dr. Dre and Michael Jackson, he enjoyed admiring himself in the mirror while wearing the full-sized earphones. Often he would get excited and try to sing along, and when he couldn’t (because he spoke almost no English), break out chanting, “Hip Hop, Hip Hop”, struggling with the ‘H’ sound, normally silent in Spanish. He spoke often of Harlem and Brooklyn, as though they were places of utopia. It was a telling moment one day, when he was examining my clothes, mentioning which ones he liked, and wouldn’t mind owning, and of the 6 shirts I had, the only two he said he didn’t like were a red national team baseball jersey with “Cuba” written across the chest, and a guyabera, the traditional shirt of Cuba, both which I had bought in Havana.

Two days before I left Havana, Felix and I sparred for the final time.

We had sparred three times before, and after a little confusion the first time, Felix had made adjustments and figured out my awkward, non-Cuban style. The last two times he had used his speed to have his way. For my part, every time we had sparred, I had been at the tail end of a multiple-hour workout; that and the awesome speed at which he operated made him difficult to hit. He loved going to the body. One time he had come in and unleashed a 6 punch flurry, then as suddenly as he had come, returned from harm’s way, untouched.

On this day, however, I was determined to give as good as I got. One thing Guillermo—and Felix—had taught me was that when someone came in close quarters, no matter how good they were, they were liable to be hit back; it was just a matter of swinging. Plus, no matter the skill level, when boxing shifted to slugging—which at some point it invariably did—the importance of skill was usually offset by power and desire.

The atmosphere was tense, more like that of a match than sparring. I had not trained the previous two days, and was feeling fresh and sharp. Not to mention, seven weeks of training in humid conditions with subsistence levels of food that contained none of the trans fat or preservatives typical of North American food had rendered me chiseled like a Cuban.

I had a strong inclination of what to expect in return from Felix, considering he had shown me most of his repertoire of tricks. Plus I held a 12 pound weight advantage, and at 24, was physically more developed, especially in the shoulder area. When I opened up with a hard right upstairs, Guillermo said “Aieee” (the traditional sound—described in eloquent detail by Hemingway in 'The Old Man and the Sea'—Cubans emit to express approval) and stopped the action to commend me. He was both impressed and thrilled that his work as a trainer had been worth something. The action continued back and forth for the six four minute rounds, during which, not only did the friendship mean nothing, the pride of it made the punches thrown extra purposeful.

When it was over, though Felix had connected with many hard punches, he, not me, was the one sporting a cut on his lower lip. Guillermo pointed it out and smiled. I got the feeling that the ferocity of the battle had given both of them a new respect for me.

It was a Saturday afternoon, the happiest day of the week in Havana, and the tropical sun was gaining power as late-spring became summer. We left the gym and went to my apartment. Felix, as he had several times before, began attempting to read 'Crime And Punishment' aloud, but after a few lines of mispronunciation abandoned the effort. He tried again moments later, but again gave up. Then shaking his head in disappointment he said, as he had several times before, that his greatest fear in life was that he would never learn English. Watching Felix, usually the picture of confidence, struggle was a humanizing sight.

We walked to Chinatown, where the city’s pizzerias were, and got a pizza each. Then, with a bottle of cola, just as we had several times before, we walked back to my apartment to eat it. However this time, after a few bites Felix stopped eating. He said the stoves at his house had stopped working the day before and he wanted to share the pizza with the others. When I offered him money to buy more pizzas he refused, accepting $5 only after serious prodding. His determined refusals were in serious contrast to the jineteros (hustlers) whose presences famously filled the city’s main streets.

I visited Felix’s family once again the day before I left. I had given Felix $50 and my Nike basketball shoes that seemingly every habanero had admired, and his family was thrilled. Felix’s mother offered me a small shiny stone as a token of her appreciation and mentioned how grateful she was and how much she trusted me. Felix again told me of his plan, set two years in the future, about using me as a contact to get a visitor’s visa into Canada, whereupon he would find himself a wife, making him an automatic citizen. He didn’t know much about the immigration procedures, only that they were very difficult.

Plans like his were common for Cuban athletes. Ten days earlier at the gym a woman had overheard us talking about his departure plans and asked where he planned on going. When he told her Canada, then the U.S., she just laughed.

It reminded me of a few weeks earlier when Felix and I had been on a packed city bus headed to the beach, and Felix had pointed out the window towards a billboard along the highway that read, “Socialismo O Muerte,” (Socialism or Death) and said, “Mirar” (Look).

He smiled a telling smile but said nothing.

He didn’t need to—like everything else around here it was both simple and confusing. For Felix the conundrum was a never ending circle. His greatest asset was also his greatest problem—he knew too well how much value his gift had elsewhere. But on this island of equality, where poverty as a social concept did not exist, where people were told to elevate their moral selves from the pitfalls of materialism, and where kids were trained to perfection, everything—including his skills—belonged to everyone.
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