The Rum Chronicles

In which the author observes recent changes in Cuba: Cheap liquor is now plentiful but hope has become scarce

Then in Spanish, Daniel spun out a rumba: "Señoras y señores/a fighter has emerged/who's attracted attention/who's won a following/he's the fighter Julián/ watch out, opposing boxers/Julián will leave you in the shadows...."

The men began to clap and shout and dance. Between verses Daniel raised a bottle of rum, poured it into his mouth, sprayed it out, and then continued the rumba. "Señoras y señores/you might have seen him on the television/he demonstrated his courage in the first round/he threw right-hand combinations/he threw left-hand combinations/but in my judgment, luck was not with him that time/a cut opened above his right eye...."

Then out from the dancing cluster stormed a tall frowning man whose grim face bore the scars and flattened nose of a boxer. He grabbed Julián's arm, then a nephew's. But they'd already heard him out. Julián introduced him to me. "Tell her your story, Roel," he ordered. "But talk slowly so she can understand you."

I saw his point when Roel reached out to grip my shoulders, just to make sure I was listening, and launched into the story of his brilliant career in the fastest Spanish ever spoken. I picked up some English words: Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Tito Trinidad, Whitaker, Spinks, De la Hoya. At first I thought Roel was just dropping names, but no, he not only fought all of these guys but also knocked them out! Yeah, he knocked out Mike Tyson! He went on several tours of the States, yeah, he fought the greats. He met a rubia on one of his trips, a blonde, and she fell in love with him and he with her, but he hurt his head in the ring, it was bad, and the Cuban doctors wouldn't let him fight anymore, and his rubia, with whom he had a child, stayed in the States while he went back to Cuba. "Me hace falta la rubia!" Roel cried. "I have to find my blonde again! She's there, in la yuma! You can help me!"

But it was too late. The express to Havana was about to leave. Julián came to get me. Héctor handed me an envelope for his daughter in Miami. "Please tell her I love her and I miss her so much," he instructed. He nervously smoothed his mustache. "No, don't tell her I miss her. Don't tell her anything. Just I love her."

Julián was saying, "Roel's crazy, but he's not bad. He's got a good heart." He hesitated and then quickly pulled from a jeans pocket a twenty-dollar bill and wadded it into Roel's clenched fist. Even though a week later we ran out of money before leaving Havana and couldn't even pay for a taxi to take us to the airport, we agreed Roel was worth it.

"When I lived there," Julián mused later, on the flight back to Miami, "people had some hope. They could see a better future. Now all hope is gone."

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