Friday, December 7, 2007

What I Meant to Say (Part 1)

So as I write stories for this blog, and try to keep readers updated with some Cuba-related news, some posts get left behind in the time crunch. I've decided to finish those thoughts once and for all. Here's two stories that I didn't complete, they are summarized a bit, but the original message that I wanted to convey is still there.


In this story I attempted to review the recent defections of top Cuban boxers visiting South America and extract meaning and motivation from their (successful or unsuccessful) actions. I further sought to associate these events with the changing attitude of Cuba's younger population and the prospects for change within the Revolution and the current political transition.

I began by reviewing the story of Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa, three young Cuban boxers who defected from the national team while training in South America last year. The three have since gone their separate ways in professional boxing. Barthelemy is 3-0 and now fighting here in Miami with a recent win by unanimous decision. Gamboa is ranked #5 by the World Boxing Association in the featherweight division [PDF] and currently training in Los Angeles. And Solis is fighting in Germany with a current undefeated record of five bouts with four knockouts.

Their success stands in stark contrast to the most recent attempts at defection by
Erislandy Lara and Guillermo Rigondeaux, two other top boxers from Cuba who were visiting Brazil in July. Both boxers were arrested by police after disappearing for 11 days, afterward revealing a mysterious tale of events. In this case, there are opposing sides about whether the two boxers intended to defect, or had no intention to abandon their national team. Several stories in the media seem to indicate that the boxers did attempt to defect. Despite reports that the boxers had signed contracts or had prior agreements with boxing promoters, one story suggested that the boxers had tried to apply for visas to travel to Germany. Also, Human Rights Watch became concerned about the arrests and felt that "[e]ven if the two athletes did not explicitly request political asylum, claims for refugee status can be signaled through actions, rather than through an explicit request."

Yet, upon their return to Cuba, Lara and Rigondeaux were adamant that they did not intend to defect, but were instead coerced and possibly drugged by aggressive boxing promoters. Speaking to the Cuban state media, both boxers denied having signed contracts and seeking asylum in Brazil. A recent Sun-Sentinel article by Ray Sanchez catches up with Rigondeaux again saying that he never signed a contract with boxing promoters in Brazil. "That was all a lie... There was no contract," he says. Currently, Rigondeaux lives "in a leaky, run-down apartment belonging to Cuba's sports ministry," wishes to air his many grievances with the Cuban government (especially Fidel), and continues training by himself in hopes that he will soon return to the ring.

The athletes mentioned above, part of Cuba's world renowned athletic community, are seen more as soldiers of the Revolution. Fidel Castro himself, reflecting upon these events, said: "The athlete who abandons his delegation is not unlike the soldier who abandons his fellow men in the midst of combat." This also explains the required nationalistic indoctrination of young athletes throughout training. They are prepared to make a national sacrifice, just like any other potential soldier from around the world. But, the question arises: are these young men prepared to make that sacrifice?

Here too, the answer seems complex. The attitude of young Cubans seems no longer associated with old heroes like the legendary Teofilo Stevenson, better described as the "Cuban Ali." One need only look at how Ordlanier Solis presented himself to the media upon his debut in Germany. He wore gold rings and chains, boasting a "Thug Life" on his Tupac T-Shirt. (Did I mention gold watches on each wrist?) The sacrifice and commitment of Teofilo Stevenson towards the Cuban Revolution seems to have been abandoned by these young athletes. The current economic problems that affects young and talented Cuban athletes, and young Cubans in general, seems obvious to blame. But, does this mean a total abandonment of the Cuban system?

If you read Babalu Blog (check La Contra Revolucion's post on the "Youth Factor") or listen to Radio Mambi every day, Cuba seems ready to burst any day now. (Even the Cuba "experts" at UM can give you chills.) But, some current reports about the attitude of Cuba's youth and general population does not present this dire image. And, again the picture seems more complex.

Late last year, an AP article described well the frustration that many young Cubans are most likely experiencing. Damian Fernandez from FIU's Cuban Research Institute calls it the "frustration of expectations." "I want more technology, to be somewhere that feels more advanced," says Tony, a 20-year old music producer, in the article. "We want freedom of expression, freedom to do what we want... And we want dollars," says Luis, described as a young rebellious Cuban.

Another article (by Frances Robles) published in the Miami Herald last year described the problem as the Cuban government having "failed to capture the hearts of the nation’s nearly 5 million Cubans under the age of 30." But, this article becomes more specific than the AP. Robles quotes a 20-year old "potato vendor" saying: "The only bad thing here is the salary system. ... With capitalism, we’d have to work harder to pay for everything. I’d have to pay for my medicine... I’d like the same system, but I just want to earn more."

Ahmed Rodriguez, 21, is quoted saying: "If the government wants to capture the hearts of the young people, all it has to do is give higher salaries that cover living expenses, democracy, and freedom... Young people want to be able to live off their salaries... We can’t buy things, we can’t go out with our girlfriends... What are you going to do with $10?"

Gallup polling around that time, in Havana and Santiago, also showed similar tendencies. Cubans desire more personal freedoms, while at the same time viewing themselves more "equalitarian" (egalitarian) than "democratic." They also approved highly of the political leadership from Brazil and China, far more than the American leadership. Cubans respondents also strongly favored their educational and health care system, far more in comparison to other Latin countries. The US still remained the most desired trading partner.

In my opinion, young Cubans, and Cubans in general, seem anxious for change, and the new generation may not be ready to make the same sacrifices like the generation before them. The Cuban government may need a new brand for struggle. The Cuban people deserve something beyond meaningless indoctrination, or terrible predictions of instability from Miami. Their honest desires need to be heard, for their youth and their future.

Hopefully, Cuba and the US is listening.

[Part 2]

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