Generally I don’t expect the recipient of one of my nasty and unsolicited emails to respond but Brin-Jonathan Butler took the trouble to write me back after I accused him of being a “rightwing shit”. This was after I spotted a piece by him on Salon.com that described Cuba as “terrifying”. As it turns out, I did not even read the article but was reacting—violently—to the blurb that the editors tacked on to the article: “I came to Havana to film a documentary about a local boxer — and found a country by turns beautiful and terrifying.”
I suppose my only excuse was having fallen into a state of high dudgeon from reading a bunch of affidavits written by Cuba dissidents supposedly subjected to electroshock treatments in the 1980s. They had been collected in 1990 by a Freedom House researcher, who is now with the Defense Department in charge of “atrocity prevention”. Given the number of Pakistani children that have been killed by Predator Drones and the half-century long economic blockade punctuated by sabotage and invasion directed against Cuba, I was feeling more than a bit defensive when it came to attacks on the socialist island’s reputation from any quarter. Although I would readily admit that there have been human rights abuses in Cuba over the years, the affidavits did not pass the smell test.
After upbraiding Brin for ignoring the fact that a CIA-backed terrorist who had blown up a Cuban airliner had been freed from an American jail on a technicality, he wrote me back:
I cited the US courts for releasing and housing the man who blew up that airliner in my piece. Did you note that? And mocked the US for calling Cuba a “state sponsor of terror” despite their position regarding domestic terrorism against Cuba with that airline bomber.
After reading that, I said “oops” to myself and read Brin’s article, something I should have done from the outset. After reading it, I wrote him a note offering an apology—something that eventually led to breakfast with this altogether committed and serious student of Cuban society, and more particularly the role within it of Cuban boxers who have defected to the U.S.
Brin has written three articles for Salon.com, all of which are a cut above the usual fare and that share a focus on the sport of boxing. As a veteran of the “sweet science” who now trains mostly well-heeled clients to supplement the money he makes from writing, Brin writes from hard experience. In addition to an interview with Mike Tyson, his other two articles describe a documentary in progress titled “Split Decision”, a profile of Guillermo Rigondeaux who was one of Cuba’s best fighters before he defected in 2009.
The article that I had not bothered to read had this passage:
Along the Prado they used to sell slaves on the auction block, too. Before Fidel, when segregation was in full swing, the Cuban apartheid meant many clubs and parks still refused black Cubans entry. Famously even Batista, the president of the country before Fidel, was forbidden membership to a country club because he wasn’t white enough.
Maybe this was one of the reasons Guillermo Rigondeaux’s own father, living on a coffee plantation in the east, disowned his son after the first failed attempt at defection in 2007, blaming him for betraying a society that helped so many like their own family climb out of the vicious conditions that existed before the revolution. Or maybe Rigondeaux’s father was another brainwashed Fidelista oblivious to all the failed promises.
And while I know Cuba’s meaning is perpetually up for grabs, whose isn’t?
Now there’s a story really worth telling.
In the course of my conversation over breakfast with Brin, I learned that he had a very strong connection to Cuba through its boxers and that his interest in defectors (reflected deftly in “Split Decision”, the title of his film-in-progress) is very much engaged with perhaps the key question of our epoch, namely the difficulty of reconciling one’s personal and family obligations with broader social and political principles. If there is anything that involves “contradiction”, the nub of Marxist dialectics, it is the decision Cuban boxers must make when faced by the lure of big money in the U.S., even when it entails a break from everything held dear.
The website for “Split Decision” states:
The boxer’s struggle in Cuba is the Cuban struggle. All Cubans struggle from birth and they see the boxer’s struggle as a metaphor for their own.
Fidel Castro banned professional sports in Cuba in 1962. His decree created a difficult choice for boxers—stay in Cuba and fight for national glory or defect to a country where their talents could make them rich. In the 70s Teofilo Stevenson won three Olympic gold medals and turned down five million dollars to defect from Cuba and fight Muhammad Ali, asking those promoters who made the offer, “What’s a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”. In the 90s Felix Savon won another three Olympic gold medals and turned down tens of millions to travel to the US to fight Mike Tyson. What Fidel Castro was trying to use his boxers to prove was not just that his boxers were defeating Americans in the ring, but that Cuba and her system were defeating America itself, most noticeably in their sacrifice of financial reward for service to their country…
February 2009, Rigondeaux risks his life to defect with smugglers via Mexico City, into the waiting arms of Miami exiled-Cuban promoters. A legal battle between his Irish manager Gary Hyde and the Miami promoters begins for control of Rigondeaux’s career before it even has a chance to begin. Rigondeaux’s career stalls as the power struggle over his career persists. He is nearly 30 when the issues are resolved and he finally signs a contract with Bob Arum, the largest boxing promoter in the world.
Rigondeaux discovers that the biggest obstacle to his career’s success lies in the fact that the 95% non-black exiled-Cuban community in Florida offer no support of black Cuban fighters. As Bob Arum points out, “Cuban Olympic champions can’t sell out the front row of a dancehall in Miami.”
Shortly after signing his contract in April of 2010, Rigondeaux is nearly knocked out while sparring in Los Angeles with a very limited youthful amateur. He promptly severs ties with his trainer, Freddie Roach, and returns to Miami. From his corner, Roach chillingly points out, “Someone was exposed here today.” At the most important moment of his life, Rigondeaux stands on the brink of either a championship or total professional and personal collapse. After 6 successful fights, Bob Arum steps forward to offer a contract to Gary Hyde, dangling a title shot. If he wins, the American dream could still come true for Rigondeaux. If he loses, he could become just another defector from Cuba who’s lost everything in search of that dream. Like nearly all the defected Cuban fighters who came before him, the biggest opponent Rigondeaux faces is coping with American life. Every time he steps into battle in an American ring, Rigondeaux wears the flag of the nation he has left behind on his trunks. Just what Cuba he is fighting for remains a mystery.
As a long-time boxing fan and an observer of Cuban society going back to 1962, when most Bard College students including me wondered if we were about to be swallowed by a mushroom cloud, I must say that I am anticipating the completion of this documentary with bated breath. So much so that I am now putting my money where my mouth is and contributing $50 to the film’s completion at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/306344/contributions/new. I strongly urge all my readers to chip in there since I view this project as both a major contribution to educating people about Cuban reality as well as the sort of theme that young filmmakers should be dealing with.
For progress reports on the film, check the website and Brin’s twitter accounts: @BRINICIO and @_SPLITDECISION.