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Boxers may benefit from new Cuba-U.S. relationship

Boxer Erislandy Lara poses for photographers Wednesday, July

Boxer Erislandy Lara poses for photographers Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: AP

There was ambivalence in Tony Gonzalez's voice and trepidation in his heart.

When President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the United States would re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, Gonzalez was full of emotion and questions.

"Honestly, it seems one-sided to me," said Gonzalez. "I want to be optimistic but it seems like we're giving more to them. How does it help the people of Cuba? They can lift the embargo but who is addressing the human rights issues? Will Cubans be able to exit the island and travel at will?"

The last question cuts to the core of Gonzalez's business. He is a Miami-based attorney and boxing manager who was instrumental in helping three Cuban Olympic gold medalists - Yuriorkis Gamboa, Yan Barthelemy and Odlanier Solis - defect in 2006. Barthelemy and Solis enjoyed moderate success in the United States, but Gamboa is a two-time world champion who has fought regularly on HBO.

"Boxers and baseball players have always been pawns to the regime," said Gonzalez. "We don't know what's going to happen to the athletes on the island."

Not since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959 has the U.S. boxing landscape been saturated with as many top-level Cuban fighters. In addition to Gamboa, there is WBA junior middleweight champion Erislandy Lara, IBF super featherweight champion Rances Barthelemy (Yan's brother) and WBO super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, who is considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.

In 2007, Lara and Rigondeaux were caught attempting to defect while at the Pan Am Games in Brazil. Both were sent back to Cuba and banned from competing for the national team before eventually finding their way off the island. Among current professional boxers, Obama's announcement was viewed as a positive.

"This is good news to me because this presents an opportunity for me to see my family that is still back home in Cuba," said Lara.

"It is an amazing moment in history," added Rances Barthelemy. "Something I never thought that I would see happen in my lifetime. I do believe that there is much to be gained from a relationship between Cuba and the United States. The Cuban people have a lot to offer if given the opportunity."

Brooklyn's Peter "Kid Chocolate" Quillin is a Cuban-American whose father defected over three decades ago.

"I'm happy for my father, my extended family and myself to be part of such a special time for my Cuban people," said Quillin, a former WBO middleweight champion. "I'm blessed to say I have more of a hope that my father would be able to see his family that he hasn't seen in over 34 years."

Gonzalez feels that opinions on the new Cuba-U.S. relationship will differ along generational lines. Many of the Cuban boxers fighting in the U.S. have only lived through what Castro once described as "the special period." The Soviet Union was Cuba's primary financial benefactor, but when it collapsed in the late 1980s, a dramatic economic crisis hit Cuba. The country still has not fully recovered.

"Their hearts are in the right place," said Gonzalez of the fighters. "All they've known is poverty in Cuba. So any change sounds good to them. They've never seen a free Cuba. They have no idea what that is like. So I don't expect their reaction to be the same. It shouldn't be."

Gonzalez, 43, was born in the United States. His opinion is shaped by his father, who left Cuba in 1961 at age 15 after his father was jailed.

"My Dad and most of the exile community in Miami looks at this differently," Gonzalez said. "They are much older. They are the ones who had their land, had everything taken by Castro. No one can change the fact that the Castro regime destroyed lives and broke up families. I have to look at it through their experience. We are hoping that all this leads to a democratic government in Cuba."

Some of the talking points of the new relationship include relaxing rules for sending money to Cuba, expanding U.S.-Cuban trade, allowing business deals between banks and communication companies, and easing travel restrictions. The Obama administration feels those changes will help improve the lives of Cuban people.

"Let's face it, there have always been loopholes to travel to Cuba," said Gonzalez. "You can fly to the Bahamas and then fly to Cuba, people do it all the time. U.S. dollars have been going to Cuba for a long time. Canadian money and Euros go to Cuba and it still hasn't helped the people."

It remains to be seen how much the new agreement will help the average Cuban citizen or the island's elite athletes. Lara thinks future fighters will have a much easier time pursuing a pro career.

"People that are living in Cuba now have hope to follow their dreams, especially those who are in the boxing programs," Lara said. "But most important is that everyone in Cuba can enjoy the wonderful freedom that they deserve and hopefully live the American dream. With hard work and dedication anything is possible in America."


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