A writer returns to Cuba in search of the dying embers of a sports powerhouse.

Cubans have always been haunted by the sea. First it brought hurricanes––a word invented by Cuba’s first inhabitants. It brought Columbus and three Spanish ships in 1492. It brought treasure fleets soon after, along with the total extermination of the island’s original population within a generation. It brought nearly a million Africans in chains from the Ivory Coast on slave ships. It brought gold-starved pirate ships eager to plunder loot. It brought neocolonization from battleships. It brought tourists on cruise ships. It brought Fidel and 81 other revolutionaries on a leaky boat in 1956. It took 14,000 children from their worried parents, flown across the gulf during Operation Peter Pan. It took 125,000 more people during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. It would take over a million Cubans––men, women, and children––on rafts, smugglers’ boats or anything else that floats.

It also took the lives of an estimated 30 percent of all the people who tried to escape, making the Florida Straits one of the largest cemeteries on earth.

Miami Marlins pitcher and Santa Clara native José Fernández, too, died in these waters—in a tragic boating accident off of Miami Beach in the early hours of 25 September—but as an American citizen, years after surviving several harrowing attempts to cross the straits. Three times he and his mother had tried to get to Florida by boat, and each time the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted them and sent them back to Cuba. Fernández spent a year in prison for trying to defect. On their fourth attempt, they tried a different route, through Mexico. Out on the ocean, a wave swept someone off the boat and Fernández dove in to help—not realizing that the person overboard was his mother. They made it to Cancun, then Texas, before settling in Tampa in 2008.

Last March, Air Force One flew across these same troubled waters and over their beloved Malecón, Havana’s concrete windowsill on the world, to deliver an American president to their island. I decided to head there at the same time.

When you first arrive in Cuba and, like Alice, try to make sense of the patterns on the wall while falling down the rabbit hole that is daily Cuban existence, sooner or later a local will remind you of their country’s most famous adage: “Life is a joke to be taken very seriously.” In Havana, long the tropics’ answer to Casablanca, after decades under his rule, Cubans used to joke that if Spanish lacked a future tense Fidel Castro would be silenced; he only spoke in broken promises.

“A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past,” Fidel once warned his people. And so, this year, Cuba’s future––whatever that might end up being––finally looked to be getting the better of the fight.

Havana’s beloved and rickety freshly-painted sky-blue, 55,000-seat capacity Estadio Latinoamericano played host to President Obama’s final stop on the historic 48-hour visit to Havana: a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National team. It was the first visit by a sitting American President in 88 years and, after the series of reforms across the country rolled out over the last few years, cautious optimism was felt all over Havana.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house, yet, in accordance with the Cuban state’s philosophy on sport and cultural events, not a single ticket was sold for money, scalped outside or online. Nobody made a dime.

This was why so many understood the hell it had been for so many Cuban athletes to remain on the island. Anywhere else on earth, they were sweepstakes winners. Yet after they performed before a crowd of Cubans at El Latino or Kid Chocolate arena, they laughed off being nervous about pitching at Yankee Stadium or boxing at Madison Square Garden: No matter what their paydays or television ratings, there was always something profoundly lacking. Even for many back home that celebrated their escape, there was no better place to see them shine than in Havana.

Team Cuba pitcher Jose Angel Garcia. Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

Like all sporting events on the island since Fidel Castro banned professional sports in 1962, tickets were free and, on this unique occasion, their distribution fiercely protected. Last year in Las Vegas, some ringside seats for Mayweather-Pacquiao were listed for a reported $350,000. Here, for this, high rollers and fat cats couldn’t buy their way in. Even if they had, there were no luxury boxes or VIP seats waiting for them. No advertising. No corporate sponsors anywhere or a corporately named stadium. Perhaps most peculiar of all, El Latino, the largest stadium on the island, might also rank as the largest stadium on earth without anything resembling a serious parking lot. Before Fidel and the revolutionaries arrived in Havana in 1959, Old Havana, now a world heritage site, was to be leveled to build a gigantic parking lot for a planned island casino to be built next to the harbor that now welcomes American cruise ships.

Even as the rebels saved the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, they lost relations with the patronizing neighbor to the north for half a century. There were an estimated 638 CIA-sponsored attempts at assassinating Fidel Castro. On October 6, 1976, Air Cubana flight 455 was shot down and as recently as the 1990s, tourist hotels were being blown up. Some of those Cuban-Americans who claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Cuba were given safe haven in South Florida and never prosecuted.

The Cuban government took extraordinary measures to ensure no backdrop in Havana became the modern reincarnation of Dealey Plaza. Yet as Cuban-American writer and ESPN personality Dan le Batard reminded American listeners on his radio show, “Castro’s our Hitler.” For many in South Florida, especially in the older generations, there is no hyperbole in that view.

Yet, for many Cubans on the other side of the Civil War that has been fought across 90 shark-infested miles, Fidel Castro remained their Martin Luther King and George Washington rolled into one. Nelson Mandela, while branded as a terrorist by the U.S. until this label was finally rescinded in 2008, credited the Cuban Revolution as a major source of inspiration for his own struggle for freedom in South Africa. At one time Fidel Castro was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize while simultaneously being brought up on war crime charges from Spain.

In the protracted lead-up to the game, someone from ESPN on hand at the game couldn’t resist taking a shot at Cuba and tweeted a photo of the surrounding humble neighborhood conditions outside El Latino for Sports Center’s twitter account with the caption: “Meanwhile, next to the stadium in Havana…”

Instead of piling on, Americans from across the country quickly responded with “Meanwhile…” photos from the neighborhood conditions of their own local stadiums. A photo of Willet’s Point outside Citi Field showed the crushing results of lacking sewers and sidewalks. More photos from shattered surrounding areas outside stadiums in Detroit, Atlanta, the Bronx, Chicago soon followed. “You should see what it looks like next to 80 percent of fields in America,” tweeted Thomas Brendel in reply to ESPN. Adam Weinstein tweeted a photo of one of the many condemned buildings in Bristol, Connecticut: “@SportsCenter Meanwhile, outside the Worldwide Leader In Sports.”

Cuba comes to bat during the historic Rays-Team Cuba game at Estadio Latinoamericano. Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

The media likes to remind you that Cuba is frozen in time and all Cubans are imprisoned at the metaphorical Hotel California, desperate to break out. Many Cubans certainly would agree. What you hear a lot less is how Cubans really feel about outsiders, how visitors magically unriddle one of the most complicated, vexing, and dynamic societies on earth and obediently confirm every preconception they had of Cuba before they arrived.

The truth is, when you discover Havana and Cubans for yourself––for the first or 20th time––you can’t believe how little of what you’ve read has prepared you for what you encounter. Americans still believe a lot of what they read. With no free press, Cubans have always read between the lines.

Luis Tiant, a Cuban-born former three-time Major League All-Star and Pedro Luis Lazo, the active wins leader in the Cuban National Series, threw out the first pitch. President Obama introduced Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, to President Castro.

Dayron Varona, who defected from Cuba in 2013, was the first batter of the afternoon for the visiting Rays. He popped out. When Tampa Bay’s next hitter lined a ball to center that was caught by a marvelous sliding catch to deny him a hit, the crowd, albeit a great deal more subdued than El Latino’s regular fanatical fans, roared, “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!”

The apex of the afternoon’s surreal encounter happened an inning later when, after over half a century’s worth of Cold War hostility and bitterness, Obama and 84-year-old Raul Castro acquiesced and cheerfully rose from their seats to join in with fans doing “the wave.”

If Cuba wants their league to survive, they’ll have to let defectors back

Away from the field, conditions for sport in Cuba have drastically and irrevocably changed over the last 20 years. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’s defection on Christmas Day of 1997 may have been a major turning point. Fidel Castro had seen fit to reinstate Santa Claus after nearly 30 years of being banned on the island, but El Duque was not so lucky with being reinstated to play baseball. The revolution’s greatest pitcher was pushed over the edge and soon, after first being marooned on a deserted island, washed ashore in America and helped the New York Yankees win the World Series.

Today, there are 24 Cubans currently on Major League Baseball rosters—not including the recently deceased Fernández—and dozens more in the minor leagues. Over the last 15 months, 115 players from the Cuban National series have left Cuba and gutted the once dominant Cuban national team. Beginning in 1987, the Cuban juggernaut won an astonishing 152 games in a row, cleaning up at every Olympics, Pan Am Games, and major tournament they played. For decades, in “amateur” boxing and baseball, Cuba dominated the world like the Harlem Globetrotters. El Duque’s success on the world’s biggest stage, like a canary in the coal mine, changed the perception for all elite Cuban athletes about how they might fare elsewhere. Hundreds of Cuban athletes stopped being window shoppers on the American Dream and their desperation and vulnerability galvanized an insidious human smuggling trade into one of the most lucrative routes on earth. South Florida-based smugglers worked with Mexican cartels more than happy to diversify their drug portfolios to include human beings in a thriving pipeline. With the first of over a million slaves brought to Cuba in 1520, today human beings are still being bought and sold as commodities, desperate to make it across the Gulf Stream, the most powerful and dangerous current on earth.

“If Cuba wants their league to survive,” Joe Kehoskie, a former agent and current baseball consultant who represented several Cuban players starting as early as 1998, explained, “they’ll have to let defectors back. To say the cupboard is bare is an understatement. Players are leaving now who aren’t even able to sign a minor league contract. In terms of impact players, there’s hardly anyone left on the island now. The smuggling industry is adapting, as they always have, to just cast a wider net. It’s volume now. These human beings are nothing more than human lottery tickets to them. And they don’t bother with middlemen anymore. Some of these kids who signed big contracts were forced to accept losing 25-35 percent of their earnings just to get out. If we’re talking about the contracts Puig, Cespedes, and Abreu signed for––we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars these smugglers are shaking them down for. Now the majority who are escaping end up stranded in the Dominican. They’ve left one island to get stranded on another. Baseball writers like the success stories, so nobody really hears about the ‘rejects.’ I’d estimate upwards of 80% who have left over the last five or six years were marooned. There’s over a 100 in the Dominican right now that are unsigned and are living hand-to-mouth. The backlog of impactful Cuban ballplayers is over.”

By the third inning, both presidents had left El Latino in their respective heavily-armed motorcades for Jose Marti International Airport, where President Castro bid farewell to President Obama. A procession of a hundred diplomat and dignitary vehicles followed in their wake.

It’s hard to say just what was left behind.

A lone Cuban fan after the Rays beat Team Cuba, 4-1, at Estadio Latinoamericano. Photo by: Arturo Pardavila III

My plane had touched down on Jose Marti International airport in Havana an hour after Air Force One brought the first sitting US president since Calvin Coolidge visited the island in 1928.

My nerves were shot dragging myself into Cuban customs after my plane landed. On my last visit to Havana five years earlier, I’d illegally filmed the last interview Teofilo Stevenson ever granted before his death on June 11, 2012, age 60. Stevenson, the legendary three-time Olympic champion, had the second most famous Cuban face after Fidel on the island. But when I caught up with him, Stevenson was a severe alcoholic who would only talk about the millions of dollars he turned down to fight Muhammad Ali if I agreed to pay him some money under the table. “I’m broke,” he confessed, despite living in comfortable home in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Havana. The Miami Herald ran a front-page story about this interview with all the nuance of TMZ or Gawker releasing a celebrity sex tape. It was egg on the face of the Castro brothers and the Cuban system, unlike what the litany of fantastically rich American athletes and entertainers who went bust represented about our system. I had unintentionally handed heavy ammunition to a lot of the Cuban government’s enemies.

For this trip, I took some goofy telenovela-precautions to improve my odds of getting in. I flew into Havana via a third country designated as a vacationing tourist rather than seeking press credentials. I also flew in under a different name and nationality than the Herald had publicized in their article. For luck, as I had done for 12 years traveling to the island, I wrote my desired Havana address as The Casablanca since, despite it sounding like a perfectly reasonable hotel in Havana, it didn’t exist.

If that panned out, to get into the baseball game without credentials, I’d reached out to the top American fixer in Havana, a fiendishly intelligent and gorgeous 25-year-old Columbus, Ohio native plugged into everything after living on the island for two years. I’d agreed to mule her in a bottle of perfume and two H-Cup bras from an Upper East Side luxury boutique stop. She was giving a tour of Havana to a visiting American billionaire the same week I was arriving.

I found the line with the most sympathetic-looking olive-fatigued customs agent of the dozen available and waited my turn until she grimly waved me toward her desk. Soldiers were pacing around the room with leashed dogs. I handed over my passport with sphincter clenched. As she scanned the passport a menacing red box appeared on her computer with the accompanying soul-shattering sound of an emergency brake crunched into place. “Here they come,” said the inner voice in my head. The customs agent glanced over at me and smirked long enough to launch a coming-attraction movie trailer in my mind of spending the next 36-hours cavity-searched in an interrogation room. “Stubborn machines,” she sighed. Suddenly she turned back to her screen and pounded a key a couple times until the red box evaporated. She asked me to pose for a camera hanging over her desk, handed back my passport, and waved me through. “Bienvenido a Cuba,” she smiled.

Soccer on the Malecón, Havana’s beloved sea wall. Photo by: Michael Magers

From a payphone I called Ana, an old friend and cinematographer who I’d hired while filming Olympic boxers around Havana five years before. I wanted to see if she knew an apartment I could rent for my stay. It turned out she had a new place in Vedado, an old mansion district that is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. In the last two years, her entire family and relatives had sold off everything and fled to Spain and Miami. They couldn’t get all their money out of Cuba (only in the last few years had Cubans been permitted buy and sell real estate), and with what was left behind she’d bought a two-bedroom apartment with a balcony for about 20,000 US dollars on the newly legal real estate market.

Ana wanted to meet at Rafael Trejo, the old boxing gym that first brought me to Cuba back in 2000, so she could take some pictures of children training. I took a beat-up cab into Old Havana along the Malecón. In 1937, the journalist Francisco Bedrinana described the Malecón as well as anyone ever has, “made of fragments of creole sun, of tropical moonlight, the faces of lovely women, explosive laughter, soft singing and the blue-green offerings of the sea by its side murmuring its whispers of endless passion.” Turning away from the enormous looming Morro fortress and lighthouse, we passed through some spooky neighborhood pockets face-lifted into looking like replicas of Seville or San Sebastian. A little further down, I got dropped off next to a gigantic cruise ship docked in the harbor. Ducking off into Old Havana’s crumbling baroque and neoclassical labyrinth of streets, old women still sold coffee from thermoses poured into shot glasses from their doorsteps. Every decaying floor above the old women had a line of laundry strung over gnarled and beautiful balconies. The area surrounding Trejo had used to be operated as Havana’s most famous red light district for American sailors. That era’s most famous pimp, Alberto Yarini Ponce de Leon, killed in a duel back in 1910, had had the largest funeral procession in the city’s history. Physically, the neighborhood hadn’t changed much since.

One Cuban Olympic boxing champion left because the government gave him a Chinese bicycle as a reward

As I passed an 18th-century church and neared the entrance of Rafael Trejo, an Afro-Cuban youth in shades, a giant gold watch, and decked out in Floyd Mayweather’s TMT clothing, was defending the garishness of his watch to the Macbeth Witches who for decades have stood guard to the boxers who train in the open air under the stars. Floyd Mayweather had paid a visit to this gym on a day trip to Havana several months back and perhaps left behind some clothes as souvenirs.

After I shook hands with the kid, he addressed me as “campeón,” (champ) and it stopped me cold. The only Cuban fighters who use “campeón” as a term of affection to outsiders are invariably Cuba’s best. I asked for his name. He stood proudly and took off his glasses, “Roniel Iglesias.”

“Campeón Olímpico de London?” I asked.

He smirked shyly and nodded.

Iglesias’s girlfriend approached him and asked him to take her for a ride in his car. I asked him if the government had given him the car for his success in London during the Olympics and he smiled but didn’t answer. Joel Casamayor, the first Cuban Olympic boxing champion who abandoned the island in 1996, claimed he did so after the government gave him a Chinese bicycle as a reward for his medal.

So Iglesias’s fashion choice seemed a lot less arbitrary. Maybe Mayweather, recently retired from the sport and eager to get involved in promoting fighters, dropped down to Cuba as his own talent scout. The clothes he’d given away weren’t gifts, it was advertising. Maybe he left the car, too.

Mayweather had picked the right location. Every great champion Cuba had produced from Kid Chocolate on down to Guillermo Rigondeaux had passed through this gym. Nearly all of them had turned down vast fortunes in order to stay in Cuba. The tide turned around 2006, when most of the Olympic champions began leaving. For years they’d had to sell off their clothes, cigars, and even Olympic medals to make ends meet for their families. Enough was enough. By the handful, Cuba’s best fighters stepped into smuggler’s boats to chase after the American Dream. The joke around Havana was that many Cuban boxing champions signed more contracts to leave with foreign managers and promoters than they did autographs for fans.

Through the entrance I saw my old boxing trainer and friend, Hector Vinent, working with a group of children inside Trejo. Ana was already inside with them taking photos of that late afternoon’s training session. Hector was a two-time Olympic champion who described his temptation to leave Cuba more eloquently than any writer has: “The U.S. is like a beautiful girl in love with you that you have to ignore. You resent and lament her and all you have left is living the rest of your life based on memories.” He also told me that when he fought internationally, front-row foreign promoters constantly cracked open darkly magical, Pulp Fiction-like suitcases full of cash, or threw in pieces of crumpled up paper with handsome sums of money scrawled just for Hector to give them two minutes of conversation to discuss leaving. Hector was 44 years old now, a father of five, and since being thrown off the Cuban national team in 2000 before he’d have a chance to leave, he’d worked at Trejo ever since. I arrived to Havana the same year he began teaching and he offered me private lessons for $6 a day, nearly two weeks’ salary for what the government was paying him.

Two-time Olympic boxing champion Hector Vinent coaches young boxers at Rafael Trejo, where the author used to train. Photo by: Brin-Jonathan Butler

Hector was inside the gym putting his students through their paces while leaning against the bleachers with a whistle between his lips and a stopwatch hanging from his neck. He scratched his shaved head while vigilantly observing the technique of his boys. The most transferable skill to make a good boxer is being able to dance, which explained why these people––seemingly able to dance before they walk––produced some of the best fighters on earth. Many of these same kids came through the ballet system since the rudiments of producing grace and rhythm under grueling pressure were the same.

After the session was done, I took Hector out for dinner at his favorite spot in Havana’s Chinatown and he invited me to join him at the upcoming World Series of Boxing tournament the following week. Cuba was going head-to-head against Ukraine at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium just after the free Rolling Stones concert that was expected to bring anywhere between a few hundred thousand or even a million Cubans from across the island. This boxing tournament was deemed “semi-professional” and meant a lot more money for the families of boxers, a concession by the government to stave off more defections.

“I saw Iglesias outside Trejo,” I mentioned to Hector.

He shrugged.

“You think he’s headed to Rio to defend his gold medal?” I asked.

“I think Floyd Mayweather would prefer he join him in Las Vegas,” Hector laughed.

Photo by: Eric Greene

I took a cab with Ana back through the warm night to her new apartment across town. All the lights along the Malecón had been changed and upgraded from their previous feeble-wattage generators that used to give Havana’s rim a lush, soft glow. Thousands of people used to glaze the Malecón in silhouette, almost encased in amber while the unseen waves smashed against the concrete below their feet. Everything about this town constantly reminds you that the most beautiful sunsets require cloudy skies.

“The lights are less shy on the Malecón now,” Ana smiled, leaning back against her seat and lighting up a cigarette. “There are no secrets here anymore. There are no secrets in my apartment either. I’ve been dating a Canadian diplomat for a few months. After the first week the secret police knocked on my door to ask about him and they come back every month. I’m sure everything is bugged. In his apartment we have a magic lamp next to the bed. If we complain about his washing machine, someone comes to repair it the next day.”

“This almost seems to amuse you,” I said.

“It takes some getting used to,” Ana shrugged. “Tomorrow I’m visiting the embassy to apply for a visa to visit my boyfriend in Montreal.”

“Have you ever been on a plane?” I asked.

“Never,” she laughed. “I’ll be thirty in July and I’ve never been off this island.”

“If you get the visa––”

“When I get the visa,” Ana corrected.

“Right. What is the first thing you’ll do when you arrive in Montreal?”

“Five things I’ve never experienced before. I want to see the snow and I want to see if strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries taste like I imagine they do.”

Fishermen on Havana’s Malecón in the late afternoon. Photo by: Eric Greene

Foreign investment had led to new high-end restaurants cropping up across town that you couldn’t get into with reserving tables days in advance and no Cuban living off a state salary had a hope in hell of being able to afford. While you could still navigate the city in beautiful, broken-down taxis for pocket change, the colonial theme park Cuba had always been for wealthy visitors before the revolution was reincarnating itself.

I grabbed a taxi to meet the fixer at Club Havana, located near the Marina named after Hemingway. Club Havana had once been an exclusive Yacht Club called the Havana Biltmore that gained notoriety in the 1950s for denying entry to President Batista, Cuba’s US-backed dictator before Fidel. He wasn’t white enough to get in. After Fidel took power, Cuba’s complexion transformed drastically with the predominantly white, wealthy exodus. The palatial mansion that was built in 1928 remained at the country club and today it cost a Cuban brain-surgeon’s month’s salary to visit for one afternoon. Mostly, Club Havana was frequented by rich tourists, foreign correspondents, or diplomats eager to work on their tennis game or enjoy the bar next to the private beach. But there was a growing leisure class in Cuba who visited now also. The modest two-story house where I’d interviewed Teofilo Stevenson was nearby in a neighborhood called Nautico. That was the only time I’d visited the area, which more than anything resembled an annexed colony of Santa Monica.

Down at the beach, the fixer was ordering drinks at the bar while the half-dozen members of her tour lounged in lawn chairs near the water. She was wearing an oversized white T-shirt over a lime-green bikini and glared at me like a Russian spy vixen from a 1950s noir movie until she recognized me. Her look hardened and suddenly I was drinking life through a bent straw. I reached into my bag and held up the perfume and bras she’d asked me to bring her. She nodded approval and turned with her tray of drinks to deliver. We’d only met once at a closed Cuba Conference held at Columbia the year before, where over the course of a weekend I watched her woo everyone in attendance before setting up shop in Havana not long after. At the rate she was going, she’d be running Havana before she turned 30. For someone who’d studied Marxism at the University of Havana for a year, she was one of the most ferociously accomplished capitalists I’d ever seen in action.

After passing out drinks and smiles to her tour members, she put her blond hair up and took off her shirt and nudged her head toward the private beach for me to follow.

Before we stepped into the ocean, I heard her billionaire client’s 14-year-old daughter gasp and turn around, nudging her father’s elbow to remark, “My god, her breasts are bigger than my entire future.”

“So,” the fixer giggled, a few steps into the shallow waves. “Thanks for bringing my stuff. I’m still trying to sort out getting you and about 50 people into Obama’s baseball game. I’ll know by tomorrow. I’m working on it.”

“How’s all this working out for you?” I asked.

Havana was in the midst of a collective hangover

On my last night in Havana, I went with Ana and my old trainer Hector to the World Series of Boxing tournament at the Ciudad Deportiva. After Obama and the Stones, Havana was in the midst of a collective hangover.

Inside the arena, a giant mural of Ernesto “Che” Guevara stared down at the crowd from the rafters while a foreign television crew began filming the smoke and light show. The ring apron and corners were decked out with sponsorship logos. The production value of the event––a backwater, barnyard joke compared to anything staged before network cameras in the U.S.––was still a world ahead of any sporting event I’d witnessed in Havana. For years in the Kid Chocolate arena, they never had enough money for a bell to ring, so they used an emptied fire extinguisher and a hammer to call out the rounds.

Two Cuban and Ukrainian women entered the ring bearing their country’s flags. Before the two nations’ national anthems played over the speakers, a big screen offered a personalized montage of the 10 boxers fighting that night. Felix Savon, a towering three-time Olympic champion who’d turned down a $25 million offer to fight Mike Tyson in the 90s, entered the arena and sat front row to watch his nephew compete. A few moments later, the daughter of Savon’s hero, Teofilo Stevenson, silenced the crowd with her entrance in a peach summer dress. Savon stood and offered her the chair next to him. It was eerie witnessing the symbolic ghosts of Cuba’s past watching the ghosts of Cuba’s future.

It was the first boxing competition I’d ever seen in Cuba without headgear. One by the one the Cubans either routed their Ukrainian competition on the scorecards or beat them so savagely the referee or their corner called off the fights. There were interviews after the fights, an unheard of practice with athletes in all the years I’d been visiting. The Cuban youths were treated and celebrated as individuals, rather than the old party-line of the only superstar the Cuban athlete machine produced being the system itself.

Felix Savon left his seat before his nephew’s fight and rushed into the dressing room to offer encouragement. His nephew, Erislandy Savon, had lost a scandalous decision in the London Olympics to hometown U.K. hero Anthony Joshua, now the hottest heavyweight prospect in professional boxing. Whatever his uncle had said to him in the dressing room, Erislandy clobbered his opponent inside two rounds after he entered the ring. Robeisy Ramirez, easily the best fighter in Cuba and perhaps the best pound-for-pound amateur in the world, had the most dazzling performance of the night. He danced circles around his opponent before reducing his face to a bloody death mask. It punctuated a night where Cuba ran the table against Ukraine as the arena’s lighting crew simulated a cheesy, low-rent thunderstorm.

The World Series of Boxing tournament at Ciudad Deportiva. Photo by: Brin-Jonathan Butler

I hired an old gypsy cab to drop Ana off back at her apartment in Vedado and to collect my things before heading over to the airport. She suggested we take the scenic route driving back along the Malecón. The newly installed bright lights spread out over the water and revealed the creases marking the profound tide and currents that have always defined life on the island.

After I’d said goodbye to Ana in her apartment and turned to leave for my taxi, she cried out, “Oye!”

I turned around and saw her glowing.

“They gave me my visa!” she screamed with delight. “My boyfriend already bought me a plane ticket to meet him in Montreal.”

Two weeks later, after she’d arrived, she texted me a photograph: a lone plastic container filled with blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries perched on a frostbitten Montreal windowsill.

I called her to ask if the world outside Cuba lived up to her expectations.

“It’s a lot better and a lot worse than I ever imagined. But at least now I don’t have to wonder anymore after I come back to my Havana.”