Sons of Cuba Shows the Long Road to Glory For Cuba’s Young Boxers
Film Shows The Long, Hard Road To Glory For Cuba’s Young Boxers
Cuba, 1959. A group of revolutionaries lead by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara have managed to wrestle power from the dictatorship of Fulgêncio Batista, establishing in its place a socialist government in a move which leads to the USA imposing a trade embargo – a blockade which has lasted until this very day. Over the years, despite the difficulties experienced since the collapse of the USSR and with it the alliance of socialist countries which supported Cuba after the US blockade, Fidel Castro’s government has established world-class heath and education systems accessible to the entire Cuban population; it also has some of the best competitive sportsmen and women in the world.
Nonetheless, and despite a socialist system of which equality is one of the trump cards, international sport offers opportunities to athletes that would be unthinkable for many ordinary Cubans, as well as turning them into national heroes, they receive special benefits from the government.
Cuba, 2006. Throughout the year, groups of children of around nine years old from all over the country are selected to join Cuba’s regional training academies. It was the Havana Boxing Academy, where until recently, boys under 12 prepared for the Cuban National Boxing Championships, that British director Andrew Lang chose as the focus of his documentary Sons of Cuba, which will be released in London mid this month – see the box at the end of the article for more info on when it’s showing.
Andrew lays claim to a long-standing interest in Cuban culture and confesses he was just looking for an excuse to make a film there, “until one day I read an article in The Times about boxing in Cuba and an interview with the two-time Olympic champion Mario Kindelán. At one point, the journalist asked him, ‘Why does Cuba have such good boxing?’ – and he said ‘Cuba is a small country, but we live to fight. We fight through every walk of life.’ Finally, Andrew recalls, he had stumbled upon the story he was looking for. “I started to think about it and I decided to put the struggle for survival as the film’s theme.” He had heard about the difficulties faced by people in Cuba, and realised the daily fight for survival seen through the prism of boxing in the rings could result in an interesting piece of work.
But when Andrew was in Cuba researching the film, he came across the Havana Boxing Academy and its young pupils; a group of children training daily in the hope of one day making it as professionals. What started off as a short showing a 17-year old boy preparing to join the national boxing squad turned into a feature-length documentary following the daily routine of a youth training academy, and the young boys who lived there. The young stars of the documentary go by the names of Cristian, Santos and Junior.
Cristian ‘the old boy’ dreams of being an even better boxer than his father, the world and Olympic champion Luis Felipe Martinez. Despite being the same age as the other kids, he earned his name for his maturity and confidence, and is thought of as one of the most promising kids in the academy. Santos ‘the singer’ is a skinny little boy who seems to like sweets and treats more than the ring, and whose worst nightmare are the daily weighings-in. Junior is known as ‘the Dalmatian’ because of the white marks on his head; he hung up his ballet shoes when a boxing trainer saw him dancing and recognised his potential for a much less dainty sport. That said, in the film Junior is seen struggling to toughen up and be less of a ‘softy’ with his adversaries.
The leader of this pack is Yosvani, a man who once trained to be a boxer just like the boys in his academy, until health problems took him out of the ring, at 17. “If I couldn’t be a boxer anymore, I decided I would become the best coach I could be”, he recalls. He ended up working with children because “they’re like sponges: they absorb everything that you teach them so easily”. Some 17 years since he left the ring himself, he is considered one of the top under-12 trainers in Cuba, having coached the team which won the national championships six years in a row.
Talking to Jungle on the phone from Cuba, Yosvani said he didn’t have the words to describe how it felt to have his story told for the first time. “I’m overwhelmed with pride. The film makers really showed all of the sacrifices the athletes make in order to become champions”.
The film accompanies the Havana Boxing Academy for a period of eight months between 2006 and 2007, coinciding with the most significant period of political transition in Cuba in the last 50 years. In July, 2006, Fidel Castro became unwell and handed over administration of the country to his brother Raul, as an intermittent measure. The Commandante, as Castro is known, who governed the Caribbean island from 1959, made the devolution official in 2008.
One of the big issues in Sons of Cuba are the pressures that the children face on a daily basis. Whether it’s weight ‘problems’ – of course, none of the children in the group could be called fat, but their nutrition is closely controlled and they are weighed three times a day in the academy – or waking up at 4am to train, it’s easy to see that, in one way, they are being deprived of their childhoods.
From the outset of the film, they are shown training, chanting mantras such as ‘Victory is our duty’ and ‘There is no excuse for failure’ as they dedicate themselves to fighting like professionals, and fear not being good enough to make the pre-championship selections.
And it’s difficult to ignore the brutality of the sport, although gratuitous violence is in no way encouraged in the academy. Of course, all children involved in sporting competitions are restricted in one way or another, wherever in the world that might be, let alone the pressures they face from parents and trainers. But in Cuba those pressure are multiplied. When Santos thinks about quitting boxing, it’s difficult to imagine the effect the words of his father must have on him, when he tells his son:
“You have to carry on, and make yourself do it, you have to find a way to help your family in the future. You are my only son, if you don’t help me I’ll be lost…”
At the same time, when the children finally go home and we get to see the lives they would lead 24 hours a day if it wasn’t for the academy, it doesn’t seem so black and white. According to Andrew, “for really poor families, having a kid in the academy means that he is being fed during the week, but if he’s at home his parents will have to pay for his food. So that has an influence on their decisions as well.”
It’s a dilemma that didn’t escape Andrew or his team. “You’re not sure if the audience is going to be impressed or horrified with what the kids are going through. And there were aspects of the whole system that were impressive: these kids were quite disciplined, there had a great sense of community, they really helped each other out, all of which is very positive, but then there’s elements that were hard to swallow, these kids training so hard with so little food, punching each other in the face, it’s really hard, so we really had mixed feelings when filming it”
One of the documentary’s strongest points, in fact, is that Andrew gained the confidence of his subjects, giving rise, at times, to some confessional declarations – like when Cristian’s mother admits her family have been through such difficult times that she has had to send her children to bed hungry.
The Havana Boxing Academy closed its doors around two years ago, but others have sprung up in its place. Yosvani has been teaching at the High Achievement Centre for three months, but he still keeps in touch with his ex-pupils. “I miss them as if they were my own children. I still meet Cristian, and we talk a lot. He still fights and shows a lot of promise. Even though they were still kids when they started training, I think of them as my companions, too. And as the years pass, our friendship develops too – when they have problems they know they can talk to me,” he shares, with an air of contentment.
Andrew is unequivocal: “I wouldn’t want my child in a system like theirs, but if my son had a coach or a teacher like Yosvani it would be a good thing, because he was amazing. Yosvani had a real way with children. He was a real father figure.”
At one point during the Sons of Cuba documentary, the trainer Yosvani takes the kids to visit another academy; partly it is to motivate them. But there’s another reason he does so; not long before, some of the country’s top boxers left the country from that very training centre: their pictures have been taken off the walls.
The desertion of athletes is a contentious reality for Cuba, becoming more common after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Boxer Guillermo Rigoundeuax, who took advantage of the Rio 2007 Pan American Games to leave the country, was a famous example.
In fact there is no such thing as professional sports in Cuba; even world class athletes are “amateurs” and are subsidised and maintained by the Cuban government. Yet sports are a national pastime and sporting heroes, national idols.
The promise of a professional career, and the (perhaps deliberately) tempting contracts offered by some capitalist countries such as the USA, are more than enough to tempt some. Rigoundeaux himself returned of his own accord in 2007, but by then the damage was done; Fidel vowed the boxer would never compete again, and the Rigoundeaux fled for a second time in 2009, this time to Miami where he now plays in the professional league. There he joined former national boxing team-mates Yuriorkis Gamboa, Erislandy Lara and Odlanier Solís, all of whom ended up in Miami, the closest US city to Cuba.
On the other ‘team’, many Cuban athletes – and ordinary people – are virulently opposed to the desertions, regardless of the huge monetary incentives. Two of the most famous examples are boxers Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón – both of whom have several world championships under there belts, as well as being three-time Olympic champions who have been repeatedly invited to turn professional abroad.
Once Stevenson was offered $5 million to leave Cuba and “go pro”, to which he responded “What are millions of dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”. Later, when he retired, he took the position of Director of the Cuban Boxing Federation. Savón’s point of view is similar. “Money isn’t everything. Lots of people have tried to tempt me away from Cuba; they’ve offered my millions of dollars. But with the millions of Cubans that support me, I’m already a millionaire… The revolution gave us everything: health, culture, education and sport are all free. No-one makes us pay for these things. We have to defend this system. I’m a symbol of Cuba”, he states, proudly.
Fight For Peace: Building A Better Future Through Boxing
It’s not only Cuba that uses boxing as a way of encouraging a better future for children and teens. The Fight for Peace Project, in Rio de Janeiro, aims to build a healthier and safer sports culture amongst youngsters from favelas such as Complexo da Maré, where kids often get involved with drug trafficking and other illicit activities.
Founded by former English amateur boxer Luke Dowdney in 2000, the project that started with 25 people was part of Viva Rio, another NGO in the city. “I had the idea when I was in Recife working with some street kids, whilst I was doing my Masters. It’s very common for them to sniff glue and we’d been trying everything to make them quit, with no success. Then one day, they found out I’d been a boxer and that was it: they were instantly putting the glue down and asking me to teach them some moves”, he says. Some years later, when he was in Rio working with Viva Rio, the project finally came to life and the rest is history.
In 2005, Luke’s project was already serving over 500 people with the opening of the Fight for Peace Sports and Education Centre. Two years later, the project came to London, aiming to reach people between the ages of 11 and 21 from the borough of Newham. Today, it’s established as an independent not-for-profit organisation in Brasil and a charity within the UK. Luke says that many sports academies develop a social angle along the way, but he wanted his project to be fundamentally social. He based Fight for Peace on five pillars in order to prevent children from disadvantaged communities from getting involved in crime. The young people develop their skills in sports, education and vocational training.
For more information on their projects, visit fightforpeace.net