Sophie's Choice and the Cuban Boxer
American born and Cuban boxing expert, Brin-Jonathan Butler, has extensively approached in his work as journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker, the ideological divides between Cuba and the US, in this interview, he underlines the existential choices Cuban boxers have to make in their relationship with the sport and the regime.
Why do you think Olympic boxers from Cuba such as Teófilo Stevenson - a boxer as talented as Muhammad Ali - refused to abandon their country for the USA, where they would have made millions?
Just before the beginning of the 16th century, not long after encountering Columbus and the Spanish for the first time, native Cubans witnessed the relationship which these foreigners had with gold, which they saw as a terribly serious sickness. All over the island, Cuban natives threw gold into the sea and the rivers, hoping that this would rid them of the evil lust which the invaders had for money. Cuba was not to be governed by its own people in a self-determined way for almost 500 years until Fidel Castro rose to power. Teófilo Stevenson, like many Afro-Cubans of his generation, had experienced what life was like in Cuba before Fidel Castro and, in particular, how darker-skinned Cubans endured poverty, illiteracy and a lack of access to education and health care more acutely than anyone else. Although Cuba was undoubtedly a third-world country in material terms, it made incredible advances in areas of life which had an immense impact on its citizens. Teófilo Stevenson, like many of his fellow athletes, saw a great deal of his own success in terms of the sacrifices his people had made for the benefit of the many, rather than the few. The idea of money definitely appealed to Stevenson - as it does to everyone - but he spoke clearly and eloquently to me when explaining his decision: "there are decisions which come from your heart and soul and those decisions can't be betrayed." He lived and ultimately died as a symbol of the fight for something more valuable than money. Of course, his decision came at a very high cost to him personally. But equally, it must be remembered that when Muhammad Ali ended his incredible boxing career, he had no money to show for 21 years of breathtaking prize fighting.
You wrote Domino Diaries and produced a film called Split Decision. Both focus on Cuba’s Olympic boxers. What message were you trying to convey?
I felt that Cuba, the Cuban people and, in particular, their supremely talented boxers were forced to confront incredibly complicated decisions about human values and their worth. I tried to explore, without judgement, the benefits and costs to the Cuban boxers who abandoned their families, homes and country in a bid to experience the American Dream. Then I tried to do the same thing with Cuban Olympic champions who turned down all offers to leave Cuba, who tried to show that heroes couldn’t be bought; I looked at the benefits and costs of that decision too. I described this decision, which the boxers and, by extension, all Cubans have to make, as Cuba's answer to Sophie's Choice. I feel that this is the main reason why
Castro's longest-lasting legacy will be that of the broken family. Every family on that island was split by those who wished to stay and those who wished to leave and no-one was left unscathed, regardless of what they chose to do. In exploring
this, I sought to highlight that it was the making of the decision, rather than the decision in and of itself, which was the real villain of this story. I believe that responsibility for this insidious decision lies with both countries on either side of the 90 miles of sea which separate Cuba and the United States.
Which dictatorial figure would you say is worse: Fidel Castro or capitalists like Don King, one of the world's most successful boxing promoters?
I certainly sought to highlight this horrendous choice for boxers as a way of underlining just how impossibly ugly the choice really is. I never sought to answer this question – instead, I wanted to probe into the depths of its complexity and the implications it has for the societies which allowed these two men to have such influence and power. In Domino Diaries and Split Decision, I had access to the boxers themselves - they spoke about this choice, which really made me appreciate how
differently it was seen by each individual who had to confront it. The boxers were more nuanced in discussing the implications than individuals I interviewed who had won National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes or Oscars.
« Supremely talented boxers were forced to confront incredibly complicated decisions about human values and their worth. »
How do Cubans feel about Rigondeaux, a boxer who left his country on a boat in 2007 and has made millions?
I spoke with and interviewed many people who completely understood and sympathised with his rationale for wanting a financial gain for his abilities in the US. However, his version of living the American Dream included abandoning a wife and
two children back in Cuba and starting a new family with a new wife, rather than trying to reunite with them in America. So once again, this impossible choice which Cubans have been forced to make can lead those of us looking in from the outside to judge or perhaps to ask ourselves about what the things we value most in the world are truly worth. Cubans I've spoken with have always zeroed in on Rigondeaux's profoundly sad face – his face was the saddest I ever saw on the island when he was permanently banned from boxing by Fidel Castro himself. He looked even more sad in America, after winning his world title. I drove him home that night, so I saw it up close.
Do you think that Castro's death has marked the end of Cuba as you described it in your book?
No - I think that my book, which covers the years from 2000 to 2011, was bisected by Fidel Castro's illness in 2006 when he stepped down from power. From that point on, Cuba transitioned to an existence without him and, to the rest of the world’s amazement, transitioned relatively smoothly. But I had the feeling that a book describing what Cuba was like during Fidel’s last days and life just after he'd stepped down might be of some value for others attempting to make sense of what it all meant. Having visited the island for Obama's visit in 2016, it's now a completely different place to the Cuba I wrote about in the book, in an enormous number of ways.
What can the world learn specifically from Castro's era and generally from Cuba?
The strangest thing the world can learn about the Cuba of Castro's time, I very quickly discovered, was that it was a place which so many Americans felt nostalgic for, in their own culture. For better or for worse, there was no better place to understand America than Cuba, in such a vast number of ways. I felt that Cuba offered a human happiness which couldn't be defined by money, a culture which couldn't be defined by marketing. People aspired to great things, without looking to cash in. Cuba took great pride in standing up to the most powerful nation on earth and in being one of the world's most famous underdogs. That struggle and that suffering brought people together in profound ways. What most amazed me in witnessing the Cubans’ struggle and hardships was the tremendous decency, courage and generosity of spirit of its people.
« There are decisions which come from your heart and soul and those decisions can't be betrayed. »
Where should boxing lovers go when visiting Cuba?
Watching a boxing match in the Kid Chocolate arena in Havana is the greatest experience I’ve ever had and if you go to the Rafael Trejo gym, you can watch some of the finest boxers in the world training under the stars. It's a magical place with free entrance for the public – a public which cheers longer and louder than anywhere else on earth.
On a personal note, do you miss Hemingway’s time?
I never lived in Hemingway's time, so I can't miss it. But what I most love about Hemingway is not how much his time was obsessed with him, but how obsessed he was with the world and people of his time. He may well be one of the most interesting characters of the 20th century, but he was even more interested in world around him and in trying to understand and observe it. I think that speaks to his essentially endless curiosity and respect for the world; he learned so many languages, read so extensively and made such an effort to explore the world to listen so attentively to what its inhabitants had to say. Many critics knock him for the same reasons, but I've always appreciated Hemingway and I think that his critics overlook a great deal of what his readers have always connected with. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet some of the people who knew him personally – their experiences have always added to his complexity rather than simplifying him.