"What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million people?"
-Cuban boxer Teófilo Stevenson
That was how Stevenson, the second most famous Cuban after you-know-who, replied to offers to abandon his island and become a professional to fight Muhammad Ali. At the time, Stevenson was perhaps the only man on the planet who was not only Ali's equal in the ring, but could surpass him in what the poet Federico Garcia Lorca referred to as duende, that ephemeral quality that separates the immortals from the rest of us, that causes women to cry and men to swoon. Stevenson was someone authentic, a man whose pride and principle bowed to no one.
Twenty years later, when Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez would have had to literally work a million years in Cuba to earn the $105 million the Dodgers gave an inferior pitcher, Kevin Brown. Duque calmly explained to journalist Steve Fainaru, "I know the prettiest word in the world is ‘money.' But I believe that words like ‘loyalty' and ‘patriotism' are very beautiful as well." Even more telling is that after Duque helped the Yankees win the World Series only months after his escape, he still maintained he never would have left his home had his hand not been forced.
Stevenson in his Cuban home during a 2011 interview. (Brin-Jonathon Butler)
"Cuba's best athletes don't stay there because of love of country," the Miami-based journalist Dan Le Batard wrote in the recent "Cuba Issue" of ESPN The Magazine to which I also contributed. "If the government were to collapse, if the rules were to change, those athletes would end up lapping onto our shores like so many waves, families in tow." Le Batard, born in New Jersey to Cuban parents, then zeroed in on Stevenson's famous words and explained, "This is one of the propaganda machine's greatest quotes, but it is also the largest kind of lie, the one that has to be told when the truth is not allowed. First of all, Stevenson didn't have any understanding of what those dollars meant."
So who does understand? A man with nothing or a man with everything? Stevenson seemed to encompass both extremes. In May of 2011, when I sat down with Teófilo Stevenson in his modest home in the comfortable Havana neighborhood of Nautico, his precarious physical state gave every indication, contrary to Le Batard's estimation, that Fidel's "favorite athlete" bore all the scars of turning down the life he might have lived away from his beloved island. By now Stevenson was a full-blown alcoholic without enough money to replace a flat tire for his car. Yet while his life remained an open wound, I saw no evidence of regret or deceit as he offered the reasons behind an impossible decision. On the other side of the 90 miles that separate Cuba from the United States, it wasn't as if Mike Tyson, having earned nearly half a billion dollars in the ring, had been less damaged.
When Stevenson agreed to talk about all the millions he turned down, he asked me for money, about $100. I suppose you could choose one of those sums as a symbol to define the man and neatly illuminate who he was and what he stood for. Then again, if you just chose one, I'm more inclined to think your choice illuminates a lot more about who you are.
Last month, two years after Stevenson's death, I arranged to meet with his daughter, Helmys, on the tiny Mexican island of Isla Mujeres, just off the Cancun coast where she's lived and worked for over half of her 30 years. Isla Mujeres had just been splashed all over the news, revealed as the place where in 2012 Yasiel Puig, the latest Cuban defector superstar athlete, and now an outfielder for the Dodgers, had been held hostage at machete-point in a dingy hotel room until a ransom for his freedom was paid.
Late one warm night, I picked Helmys up at the island's ferry terminal. She was easy to spot in the crowd, as striking in her own way as her father. Aside from her beauty, even without her heels she was a head taller than most of the men around her. I looked at her a few moments before she saw me and waved a hand high above her head like Venus Williams in mid-serve. She was another of these girls Cuba has in abundance, women who seem as if they entered the world peeled off a cigar box, all curves and color.
The last time I had been on her island speaking with her father, I was in the midst of an ill-advised affair with one of Fidel's granddaughters. This hadn't lead to an especially pleasant departure from Havana's airport. I was lucky to get out. I smiled and waved back and took one last deep breath before I crossed the street to meet her.
"There may be no entrapped pool of human talent left on earth with the dollar value of Cuban baseball players."
--Michael Lewis, author and journalist
"In a no-tell motel on Isla Mujeres, eight miles off the coast of Cancún, Yasiel Puig's escape had come to a halt," Jesse Katz's April 13 LA Magazine profile of Puig's escape began. "Confined to a corner room at the end of a shabby horseshoe-shaped courtyard, he could only wait and hope, for his value to be appraised, his freedom to be bought."
A day later, Katz's account of Puig's pursuit of the American Dream from a smuggler's boat was the biggest sports story in the country, if not the world. Puig had risked everything to abandon a life in Cuba and shipwrecked his way into Mexico, a way station of sorts, where he was incarcerated by the difference between the $17 a month he earned in Cuba and the $42 million he would sign for in Los Angeles. Katz, while still in the eye of the media hurricane, wrote me, and described the ensuing days after the article broke as "pretty much the craziest week of my life — 33 TV and radio show appearances and counting." A Hollywood bidding war erupted and a movie deal followed within a week, the myth already shaping reality.
With some clues from Katz, I spent a couple weeks sniffing around Isla Mujeres. I was looking for the motel where Puig was held after he'd swum ashore in darkness against riptides and blindly negotiated razor sharp coral after being dumped from a smuggler's boat.
"There's a tittie bar called the Casablanca, on the western side of the island," Katz pointed out as a reference. He then explained, "I was trying to speculate where you might take a girl if you happened to be leaving that joint in search of temporary lodging."
Before the hat is passed around, Isla Mujeres — Island of Women — is only three dreadfully guitar-strummed songs on the tourist ferry from Cancun's bloated coast. My aunt has had a little hotel here for five years and has been visiting for the last 30, but I hadn't seen Isla Mujeres' name in print before the Puig story. As she cast a finger over the waters toward the place where Puig most likely arrived, she told me the government plans to build a smuggler's museum on the Caribbean coast of the island. Officials want to showcase all the vessels the Mexican navy has captured from various drug and human traffickers.
She then pointed out the beach where the most recent smuggler's boat arrived and where three people drowned before reaching shore. A handful of refugees were arrested, but the rest scattered and disappeared on the island. A long-abandoned, half-built timeshare condominium complex stood watch over the desolate shore. A flapping red flag warned tourists not to enter the water due to deadly currents. A mile away, a dozen cigarette boats were docked next to the heavily guarded Mexican naval base. Soldiers patrolled the nearby tourist beaches armed with M-16s as locals sauntered around the sand peddling jewelry.
Enough Cubans have passed through this place that the once sleepy fishing village now has a strange Havana aftertaste immediately discernable as soon as you get off the boat. Cuban music wafts out of restaurants as whispers peddle cigars on darkened backstreets. The island is infested with golf carts terrorizing scuttling iguanas on the roads, many decked out to look like the 1950s American cars left behind and still on the roads in Cuba. Although Isla Mujeres mirrors Cuba's crocodile shape on a map, in the daylight the tourist coast on the western side of the island feels like a miniature, dressed down, ersatz Miami Beach. But after the sunset stains the sky, the rusty electric streetlights hum and smear their old-penny glow against narrow streets. Then everything on Isla Mujeres opens up like a chocolate Christmas advent calendar, just as Havana does.
Nowhere I've ever been can break your heart and leave it bleeding like Havana.
Havana, Cuba. (Getty Images)
As far as cities go, Havana is a festering treasure chest, a primary color. Isla Mujeres' paint kit is fresher, but still, somehow, not as bright. There are a lot of cities in this world that can break your balls, but nowhere I've ever been can break your heart and leave it bleeding like Havana. When you leave the scab comes off and never heals. And after you first arrive, you're told by many that everyone deserves to have Havana as a ciudad natal, a hometown. This is an ugly condition I'll confess very uneasily: I'm homesick for a place I wasn't born to.
It always amazed me how people with so little are willing to share so many precious things with strangers. But they do. That's why I spent 12 years doing anything I could think of to spend as much time in Havana as I could, mostly exploring the other side of Puig's story's coin. One of the reasons I came up with to go back ended up being to film a documentary. And filming that documentary, paradoxically, has cost me the chance of ever being able to return. Small potatoes compared to anyone else missing Havana with any skin in the game, I know. But $42 million, the amount of the contract Puig signed, seems enough incentive to me for anyone to risk their life, even abandon their family and country forever to cash in. People sell their souls every day for a lot less in New York, where I live now, and it doesn't raise eyebrows or turn heads. And those people have all the options in the world living in the greatest country on earth, don't they?
No, I understood why Cubans left within five minutes of arriving. Who didn't? What I wanted to know was why so many Cubans stayed. And I wanted to know the cost of that decision, too, and the price of leaving, to know why so many lives of refugees like Puig, despite hitting the American Dream jackpot, somehow remain so unbearably incomplete without home. In 1956, as Russian tanks rolled outside her apartment, my mother abandoned most of her family and left Budapest as a refugee from Communist Hungary during the revolution. She was happy with the new life she found and was never nostalgic for what she left behind. For many reasons, it's entirely different for Cubans. Everything seems to penetrate these people deeper. Cuban eyes never seem far away from tears, either from joy or pain.
I have a dirty little habit of distilling every city I've ever visited into the historical person I'd have most wanted to meet and share a cigarette with. From the first moment I stepped foot in Havana my dream was to speak with Teófilo Stevenson, Cuba's twisted answer to Vincent van Gogh. If van Gogh, in part, captured the world's imagination by not being able to sell masterpieces, Stevenson did so by turning down every offer. The world knew he was good, but they weren't sure how good. Shortly after Stevenson's death, George Foreman told me Stevenson was far and away the best heavyweight fighter of his era. He was sure that if Stevenson had left Cuba and become a professional he could have been the dominant heavyweight of his time. And of course, Stevenson had that shot at Muhammad Ali, not just to defect, but to conquer. But it was a lot more than that, too. Forget the question of whether or not he could have beaten Ali. Stevenson could have been Ali. How much was that worth? What was the cost of saying no to that? Could there be a principled position to justify such a refusal? The answer depends on who you ask.
I tried for years to ask that of Stevenson, but when I finally heard his voice over the phone agree to sit down on camera, I assumed my days in Cuba were numbered. I knew that showing the condition Stevenson was in to the world would go over on the island about as well as releasing a sex tape of Michelle Obama in the States. If, at his height, Stevenson was an emblematic hero of everything that succeeded for the revolution, his deterioration remained just as potent for what had failed.
I wasn't happy about that. Exploring Castro's pawns in Cuba and exposing anything negative also makes you a pawn to all his enemies 90 miles away. Both sides don't have much of a track record for nuance of opinion.
"A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past."
Of course, there was nothing unique about the circumstances of Puig's story any more than there was with Stevenson's. "Se fue" (he left) and "se quedo" (he stayed) are decisions that have circumscribed and defined the identity of every Cuban family and have been around since Fidel Castro and the revolution split in half nearly every family on the island. This is Cuba's answer to "Sophie's Choice."
It's estimated as many as 10,000 Cubans — men, women and children — are smuggled off the island to Mexico each year. The drug boats the navy catches are mostly from Colombia, but nearly all of the speedboats trafficking human beings that have been impounded in Isla Mujeres have Florida plates and are owned by Cuban ex-pats. With Cuban smugglers, it's always about people, that fragile contraband that breathes and weeps — their own people are driving this industry. One smuggler I'd been exploring in my documentary, the Caribbean Queen, earned that nickname because he always dressed in drag while smuggling people, a persona he adopted because Cuban authorities were forbidden from shooting at women. Castro had warned if he ever caught him, he'd cut off his balls.
The Queen made untold millions profiting from egregious desperation. "Venture humanitarianism," Steve Fainaru called it when he wrote of El Duque's escape.
Isla Mujeres, only four miles long, has become an even more desirable destination for smugglers than the Cancun mainland three miles away. From Isla Mujeres' seawall Malecon to Havana's is 308 miles, to the western edge of Cuba, only 96 — about the same distance from Cuba to Miami. Some vessels, I was told, took as long as 18 days to make the journey. On the way, boats capsize, people drown, children starve and dehydrate — people are sometimes tossed into the water if the boats are given chase. I've reviewed grainy U.S. Coast Guard footage of some of these human atrocities and it looks like something from the foul corners of Goya's imagination. Many believe that the ocean separating Cuba from the United States represents the largest graveyard on earth. One of the first jokes I heard upon visiting Cuba asked, "What is the primary source of food for sharks in the Florida Straits?" The answer? Cubanos. Ja, ja, ja ...
It's puzzling what is required for it to be recognized as something even more malevolent: a modern slave trade.
The drug cartels in Mexico that back the trade see human smuggling as little more than a way to diversify their portfolios. At $10,000 a head, the going rate to Mexico is one-tenth the asking price for direct passage to Florida, so they make up the difference in profit through pure volume. With an average of 30 Cubans smuggled per trip, this is big business for everyone involved: $100 million a year at least, in a place where $100 million feels more like $1 billion. "COD" doesn't mean "cash on delivery" in this transaction; it means "cash or death." The real "winners" of this sordid enterprise, the cargo, like Puig, are shackled and held for days and sometimes die awaiting payment to be made while bankrupt policies on both sides of the shark infested 90 miles only encourage this perversely thriving industry to grow and become ever more profitable. As Joe Kehoskie, a friend and baseball agent specializing in dealing with Cuban defectors for many years, put it, "As it gets more lucrative it'll only draw in more of a criminal element than exists and get worse."
Cuba's athletes are worth billions anywhere else but their home. While less than 1 percent of all of Cuba's athletic talent have abandoned Cuba since the "triumph" of the revolution, over the last few years, more Cuban ballplayers and boxers than ever have entered these smugglers boats and perversely transformed into the most expensive human export on earth. Even after the athlete's fee/ransom for transit is paid, a sizeable backend chunk from the contracts these athletes make in the U.S. still must be coughed up under threat of murder or harm to families back on the island. And while the press debates whether financing these athletes out amounts to human trafficking, it's puzzling what exactly is required for it to be recognized as something even more malevolent: a modern slave trade. Athletes like Puig, despite their multi-million dollar contracts in the U.S., remain indentured servants who have to work off their debt.
Despite this, the incentive to leave is only going to grow as the offers continue to get bigger and bigger. Kehoskie estimates there are at least a half dozen other Puig-sized contacts awaiting players who thus far have proved to be, in the language of the trade, "true believers."
It has long been this way. Back in 1492, encountering Cuba for the first time, Columbus described it as "the most beautiful land that eyes ever beheld." Of course, this was just an unexpected detour from the real objective of his voyage. Fortunately, the Taíno natives quickly brought everything back into focus when they greeted their visitors with offerings of gold (which held no value in their society) and happily disclosed other places where more could be found. Columbus and those who followed promptly enslaved the natives and enlisted them to mine for any and all gold that could be seized and returned to Europe.
Columbus and his men also rounded up the Taíno wives and female children and after endless gang rapes sold them into sex slavery back in Spain. Once the remaining natives of Cuba fully understood that insatiable lust for the island's natural resource was the reason behind Columbus and his men's continued presence, they dispensed of whatever gold they still had into the sea in hopes of ridding the island of its intruders. Farther inland, the Taínos dumped their gold into rivers. By the 1530s, nearly all the Taínos were wiped out by a combination of genocide, slavery, starvation, suicide and disease. Nearly 500 years later, athletes like Puig have replaced gold as Cuba's most lucrative treasure.
Today, history repeats itself as Cuba's loot once again enters the sea in protest, but this time the protest is in opposition to the original Taíno values — the ones that saw gold as no more valuable than anything or anyone else — now advanced by Castro's government. Now Cuba's treasure willingly throws itself into the sea for top dollar.
"America ... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
--Hunter S. Thompson
I interviewed Teófilo Stevenson in his home in May of 2011, the same week Osama bin Laden, the CIA's "most dangerous man in the world," was taken out. On the way over to Stevenson's house I drove past a dozen billboards of Che Guevara, Cuba's most revered revolutionary hero. Today, most Americans know him from a popular tourist T-shirt, even worn by one New Yorker I saw celebrating Bin Laden's death by lighting a Cohiba cigar. But Che was alsoexecuted by CIA order back when he was listed as the "most dangerous man in the world." I wondered if kitsch could do to Bin Laden one day what it did to Che's legacy.
I'd already taken one too many chances interviewing famous boxers under surveillance by the government. Coupled with that fling with Fidel's granddaughter, things were getting edgy for me in Havana. You never know with Cuba whether you've arrived at the wrong place at the right time, the right place at the wrong time, or — the most sinister of all — simply the last time. Cars full of strangers would pass by gleefully pointing up at security cameras. If the police were coming, they were coming. I called Stevenson again from a pay phone and he reluctantly agreed to meet.
OK then, fuck it. One way or another, I would never have another chance. If any place appreciated a pair of balls this was supposed to be the town. Hold on tightly, let go lightly. I stopped a gypsy cab and offered him a day's fare for a round trip to take me and my translator across town to Stevenson's home in Nautico, near the Marina Hemingway.
The translator told me that the best chance we had to coax Stevenson into talking on camera was to bring him some suitably "respectful" vodka as a present. Stevenson was known to trick a lot of journalists into throwing him a party for everyone he could find on the street and then, when the time came to film curtly call the evening to a close. My friend Bobby Cassidy, a writer in New York, had been duped in the same manner.
When we arrived in Nautico, we grabbed a bottle from a kiosk and walked the rest of the way to Stevenson's house. The neighborhood was green and lush, far more cheerful than Felix Savón's (Cuba's answer to Mike Tyson, a boxer who turned down $20 million for a crack at Tyson's title), but reports of Fidel giving Stevenson a "mansion" were nothing more than propaganda. What passes for a luxurious neighborhood in Cuba is, by American standards, sad and drab and nondescript. Fresh coats of paint and old Russian cars — Ladas locked behind fenced-in driveways — are the only signs of relative affluence. Most Cubans elsewhere, of course, have no money for cars, or paint.
My translator was very quiet the closer we got to Stevenson's home. It was clear that he was having second thoughts about being involved with this. He'd spent time with Stevenson before, translating for diplomats who wanted to meet him. He had not enjoyed the experience.
"How bad is he?" I asked him.
"Have you ever spoken to him on the phone when he isn't drunk?"
"I don't think so," I said.
"Exactly," he shook his head.
"He needs the money. So do I. So does everybody in this fucking country."Stevenson during a 2011 interview. (Brin-Jonathan Butler)
In conversation, he often didn't know what day or month it was. I was never sure if he was joking. He'd switch from English to Spanish to Russian. If Ali was locked in his body as the cost for his career, what was the price Stevenson paid locked in the vice of this body politic?
"I think it's fairly obvious how bad he is, isn't it?" my translator lamented. "He's not meeting you for the pleasure of speaking with a foreign journalist. He needs the money. So do I. So does everybody in this fucking country. This man is a great hero of mine and to many around the world and having him reduced to this makes me feel ashamed.
"Do you even think he'll talk with us?" I asked.
"I doubt on camera. He's not well. There's his car up ahead. There." He pointed to a rusting, green, early-1990s Toyota behind a fence. "That's his. He turned down $5 million and he drives that. Do you think I'm proud of my country for that? That's the house of Teó. By Cuban standards it's nice, but in Miami he would have lived in a palace. You want to know how hard things have gotten? He doesn't even have enough money to put tires on that car."
In 1987, Stevenson had been involved in what many assumed was an alcohol-related car accident that took a motorcyclist's life. The crime, if indeed it was one, was swept under the rug to preserve Stevenson's iconic status. He was never charged or convicted of any wrongdoing, and although he slowly receded from public view, symbolically he remained a lodestar for Cuba's moral compass. Many Cubans still set their moral watches to Stevenson's clock, and even those opposed to his socialist principles admire the man's courage and conviction.
I wasn't looking forward to undermining that. Galileo wasn't put in prison because he was wrong about anything he discovered looking through his telescope; rather, he was incarcerated simply because he saw what others didn't wish to see.
When we arrived at Stevenson's driveway we could see through the padlocked fence that his front door was open. My translator hollered out and a few tense moments later Stevenson, shirtless and in blue track pants, a cigarette dangling from his lips, wound his stiff 6'5 frame into the entry way with care, bracing himself against the door jamb. I wasn't sure if the fragility in Stevenson's movements owed more to his boxing career or the booze. Nonetheless, he'd recently celebrated his 59th birthday and still looked lean and handsome.
Stevenson approached us, holding out the key to his gate while my translator turned to me with a look of dread.
Teófilo Stevenson won his first Olympic gold medal in 1972 and his last world amateur championship in 1986. He won 302 fights and once went 11 years without a single loss. The offer to fight Muhammad Ali came after Stevenson won his second Olympic gold medal in Montreal in 1976. $5 million were on the table when Stevenson counter-punched at capitalism and asked, "What is $1 million compared to the love of eight million Cubans?"
Ali was a man adept at finding weakness in his opponents and cruelly exploiting it to his own advantage, yet he never saw weakness in Stevenson, not even in his refusal to turn professional and face him in the ring. He admired a man standing up for what he believed in, as Ali had done, refusing to compromise his beliefs to fight in Vietnam. In 1996 and 1998, Ali donated a total of $1.7 million worth of medical aid to Cuba as a way of opposing the economic embargo against the island nation, which had contributed so much to the brutal economic crisis of the previous decade. Stevenson greeted Ali at Havana's international airport and they were inseparable during both of Ali's visits, equals.
Stevenson pried open his lock and pulled back the gate until we had entered and then proceeded to lock us in. There were rumors that he kept a pistol Fidel had given him personally for protection. He offered a warm handshake and smiled, yet his eyes were bloodshot and turned sad the moment he noticed my camera.
"Please come inside," he said in English.
"You like speaking English?" I asked.
"As long as he doesn't start the Russian ..." My translator smiled in Stevenson's direction.
Once we got inside his home — surrounded by photographs, mementos and trophies —Stevenson pointed to a chair for me to sit in while he sat across from me, the street visible to him out the open front door. I quickly realized why this was: Every last person who walked by, spotting Stevenson, sang his name in joy, raising a hand of praise, and it lifted his spirits. I handed the bottle of vodka to Stevenson and he tilted his head in thanks, asking the translator if he could go back into the kitchen and bring out some cups and orange juice for us.
Even though at the time I had no idea that this was going to be the last interview of Stevenson's life before his sudden death a year later in June 2012, I knew this wasn't going to be easy. Suddenly it got considerably worse.
I turned and began attaching my camera to a small tripod. I was in the process of stretching out and unfolding it just as Stevenson lit another cigarette, turned to our translator, and said in Spanish:
"Tell him he has to pay, or there is no interview. Make him come up with something."
"How much do we ask for?" my translator asked Stevenson.
"You tell me," Stevenson grunted. "You have experience in this. Give him a number."
"I say we ask for 80 or a hundred. I'm broke."
"OK." Stevenson shrugged. "But I'm worse off than you. If I say there is no interview—"
Just then he noticed the camera pointed in his direction. "Don't film me now. No camera! Put the camera away."
I swung the camera away.
Stevenson was in an impossible situation. He not only rejected America's millions, but he also had to pretend there was no consequence. Stevenson had to be just as defiant in his choice as Puig was pretending he'd reached salvation entering American life with no lingering pain. Zero tolerance for dissent on this point cuts both ways. The emotional truth remains hidden.
He not only rejected America's millions, but he also had to pretend there was no consequence.
"Is it off?" Stevenson growled.
I turned it off.
The translator spread out three cups before Stevenson and placed a large bottle of orange juice next to the vodka.
"We can talk, but I don't want to be filmed.
"If you grant me an interview I have to film." I said. "That's why I'm here."
"For $100 you can film the pictures on my wall and have the audio of our interview."
"I'm sorry," I laughed. "On the phone I asked for a filmed interview. That's why I came here. That's my work."
Stevenson put out his cigarette on the floor and looked for another in an empty pack. I offered him one of mine.
"What is this?"
"American Spirit," I said.
"You want Teófilo Stevenson to smoke American Spirit?" He spat out the words. "Why did I ever let you in my house?"
With that, Stevenson went about preparing three drinks in the large paper cups. He filled all three cups to the brim, but two had nine parts orange juice to one part vodka, while the last had nine parts vodka to just a token splash of orange juice. Half the bottle of vodka was already gone.
"OK." Stevenson laughed. "How long you want for our interview?"
"An hour?" I said.
Stevenson nodded thoughtfully and reached down for the suicide screwdriver and hoisted it up toward me.
"Fuck that shit." I waved it off. "I don't even drink." I knew the drill. I had seen my own father try to drink himself to death, just as Stevenson was doing now.
"My friend" — Stevenson snickered — "my deal is this. If you pay $130, you can have an hour with me on camera and film my trophy walls and pictures with Fidel and Ali."
"Done." I reached over to my camera.
"Annnnnnnd," Stevenson added, "The time starts now but you can only begin filming once you finish this drink. These are my terms."
"Those are your terms?"
"Yes." Stevenson smiled coyly. "Do you accept my terms?"
I took the cup of vodka, chugged it in five or six excruciating gulps, struggled not to vomit in Stevenson's living room for the next few moments, and once it had finally settled in my stomach, I reached over to turn the camera on to catch Stevenson's reaction.
"Deal's a deal, campeon."
The translator shook his head. "You're both insane. What am I doing here?"
"OK, one minute," Stevenson pleaded. "One minute." He staggered to his feet and wobbled his way into the dining room and found a shirt and cap after tossing aside some dominos on his dinner table. He returned in a Che Guevara T-shirt and gray cap as armor and stared at me like an old lion.
I started filming. "Are you happy with your life in Cuba?" I asked him, my voice shaking. "Are you happy with the life you've had?"
"Happy? I'm happy. I'm very happy."
"Why is that so hard for people to believe?"
"There are people who become immoral. I would never do that. I endure until the end."
"I've just come from Ireland, where (Cuban boxer) Guillermo Rigondeaux had his last fight. He told me you defended him after he tried to defect."
"The Cuban system helped him. Where he grew up, in Santiago de Cuba? They did not have the conditions that the revolution has created today. He should have respected that."
"Félix Savón told me he felt Rigondeaux betrayed the Cuban people," I said.
"I rejected all that money. Because they wanted me to stay out there in the United States like Rigondeaux and the rest of them. Rigondeaux decided to leave. He wasn't allowed to box anymore in Cuba. He betrayed the Cuban people. And ... he left."
"What does this decision feel like to stay or to leave?" I asked Stevenson. "Is it a decision from the mind or the heart?"
"There are decisions that emerge from your heart and your soul and those decisions can't be betrayed. Now please stop the cameras for a moment. I don't want the children to see the champ smoking, please. It's a bad example."
Helmys wore a long a white dress with her curly hair hanging over her shoulders. While she was built long and lithe like an Olympic swimmer, her arms were as large and sculpted as any middleweight boxer I'd ever seen.
"You lift trucks for a living in Cancun or what?" I asked her.
"I do no exercise," she blushed. "I'm fortunate with good genetics."
"You know, women box in the Olympics now."
"Maybe to settle the argument between your dad and Muhammad Ali I could promote a fight between you and one of Ali's daughters."
"Laila Ali was a world champion!"
"So was her dad when Teófilo got all those offers to fight him."
"I'll consider it."
Just as Ali and Stevenson bore an uncanny physical resemblance, Helmys could have easily passed as one of Ali's daughters. But I wondered how different her life would have been if she had enjoyed the benefits Ali's children enjoyed from his fame and fortune. Teófilo Stevenson was a national hero, but he could never offer his two children the comforts and security of the millions Ali would leave behind. Yet I saw no sign of this fact burdening this lovely girl in any way.
After I warned Helmys of the distance to where I had in mind for us to have dinner, she exchanged her heels for flip-flops.
I took her to the same hotel where Yasiel Puig was held captive under threat of having his arm chopped off by a machete until the ransom was paid. It was the only hotel that fit all the basic clues Katz had provided me: U-shaped, with a pool, looking out over the water at the huge Mexican flag on Cancun, and a drunken stumble away from that strip club. Katz had tried for weeks to identify it on Google images, but failed. Since Puig had been held there, the hotel had undergone a massiverenovation. I wonder where the money came from to finance that? My aunt was certain the previous incarnation of the hotel was the dive Katz wrote about in his piece.
We walked in the darkness along the shoulder of the road, a New York avenue worth of land dividing two seas. Helmys wasn't wearing perfume, but the scent wafting off her hair, detonated by moonlight or something, was remarkably distracting.
"How did you leave Cuba?" I asked her.
"I studied international tourism in Mexico. I applied for a visa to stay and work in Mexico. I visit my home in Cuba as often as I can."
"Where did you grow up in Havana?" I asked.
"The house you visited, where my father eventually moved to, was in Nautico. We had the only swimming pool in that neighborhood, but he wouldn't use it for swimming. He liked turtles and ducks and let them use it. But before that home Fidel gave us a house near the Plaza de la Revolución, where he spoke to the Cuban people. Actually, our house was next door to Che Guevara's widow. Che's children were all my friends growing up."
"And was Fidel close with your father?"
"Very close," she slapped my arm for emphasis, as only the daughter of a three-time Olympic Champion might. "After I was born my father introduced me to Fidel and apparently I pulled his beard very hard while he craddled me in his arms.
"So you knew him while you grew up?"
"Of course. But I was ... not terrified of him. I could not speak to him ever. It was Fidel! But always I would ask my father if we were somewhere with Fidel in attendance. ‘Please, can I speak to him?' And my father would ask Fidel to come over and he always would and I had no power of speech. It annoyed my father. But I just could never speak to him."
"Do you ever think about the kind of life you could have had if your father had taken all that money to leave?"
"Money is very nice," she smiled, carressing the shoulder she'd slapped before. "But I wasn't raised that way. I had a beautiful life in Cuba and I'm very happy with my life now."
"You don't think your father ever regretted his decision?"
"He had a beautiful life and gave me a beautiful life also. He was exactly who he wanted to be.
"No. Was it an easy decision? No. Not for anyone. My father lived the life he always wanted to live on his terms. Maybe he lived it too much and it cost him an old age. But he had a beautiful life and gave me a beautiful life also. He was exactly who he wanted to be."
Helmys and I passed by the Casablanca, the dingy strip club Katz had mentioned, cigarette butts and bottlecaps studded into their dirty driveway. We could hear Britney Spears singing inside, but no light was visible. The club was hidden from the little road by a hedge, a bit like a double-chin hidden by a beard.
"Do you know about Yasiel Puig?" I asked her. "The baseball player who has become so famous in Los Angeles."
"Sure. Many Cubans come to this island or Cancun every year. Some, like him, are athletes who come for all that money waiting for them in the United States."
"You don't feel strongly one way or the other about his choice?"
"He has to live with his choice and whether it was right for him. I judge no one. It's none of my business.
"What about when people judge your father's choice? What about the people who don't believe anyone could do what he did?"
She shrugged. "Just because someone does not agree with him or his reasons does not mean they have to accuse him of being a liar."
I only had the chance to meet Helmys' father once and I was sorry from the first minute that our exchange wounded a great man's pride, that for many it would reduce him. It took about the same amount of time with his daughter to realize he must have been as proud of his legacy, raising her, as he was of anything he accomplished inside or outside of a ring on behalf of the revolution.
"I brought some photos to show you of my father that I carry on my phone. I thought you would appreciate them. Some photos of my father and Fidel. My father and me. Many have never been published. Would you like to see them?"
She stood next to me, her hair in my face, and warmly flipped through the photos of her father's life. While there were no boxing photos in her collection, everything she showed me illumintated all things I'd imagine he fought for. From his honeymoon to intimate moments with his family, to being introduced to Nelson Mandela, to doing the wave with Fidel at the Pan Am Games — all of it was bigger than life and handled with a coy smirk worthy of any iconic Hollywood movie star.
"Jesus, your dad was a handsome guy," I said.
As she stared at her father's face on the screen she corrected me, "He wasn't handsome. My father was beautiful."
Two years before, I had watched Helmys at her father's funeral as nearly a thousand Cubans in attendance collectively broke down in tears to mourn his loss. I watched her comfort her brother as Stevenson's coffin was lowered into the ground and every face in view grieved a beloved hero. I included footage of this event in my film as a means of contrasting how the prospective funerals of defector Cuban boxing champions might look in America, so far removed from friends and family back home, by comparison.
I wasn't looking to villify or judge either decision, what I wanted put on trial had always been the insiduous choice itself, something Puig and Stevenson and so many others know so well.
Trying to understand Stevenson's life and death, I asked my father to watch my interview with him. It was a tense hour, he saw a bit of himself in Stevenson, as did I.
When the film ended, my father referred me to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1905, Rilke was working as a secretary to the sculptor Rodin and confessed he was no longer writing. The artist sent him to the zoo and told him to look at an animal until he saw it. Rilke imagined the view from captivity, from the inside out.
The Panther comes as close as anything to bringing Stevenson and Cuba's blur into focus for me:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
The movement of his powerful soft strides
Is like a ritual dance around a center
In which a mighty will stands paraylzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
Lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
Rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
Plunges into the heart and is gone.
(Stephen Mitchell translation)