From defection to redemption in Castro's Cuba

Defecting from Cuba is not a decision to be taken lightly. Its repercussions can be deep and long lasting.

For Cuban boxing coach Nicolas Cruz Hernandez it led to a pivotal moment in his life which he still remembers vividly.

Cruz on how defecting led him to consider suicide

"I said to myself I have nothing else to do in this world. I don't know when I will see my family again and I am to blame. I'm going to find a solution. So I got a rope and was ready to take my life."

Cruz, who coached the Irish amateur boxing team at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, describes how leaving his family behind in Cuba when he defected to Ireland brought him to the point of utter despair.

Why is professional boxing banned in Cuba?

The widely held perception is that professional boxing was banned in Cuba in 1962 because Fidel Castro regarded it as both corrupt and corrupting.

Cruz has another take on this and contends that the sport was banned due to the inherent risk of injury.

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The boys from Northern Ireland were quietly spoken but in the ring their actions spoke really loudly.

Nicolas Cruz Hernandez

"Professional boxing is banned in Cuba because the authorities say it is too dangerous and unsafe," he said.

Cruz provides an interesting caveat to this argument, which surrounds Muhammad Ali's visits to Cuba in the 1990s.

"The Cuban authorities compared the state of Ali's worsening health due to Parkinson's disease with that of Teofilo Stevenson, the famous Cuban heavyweight boxer who won three Olympics titles but never turned professional," he maintains.

Cruz said Ali's tragic decline was used in Cuba as further evidence of the dangers involved in professional boxing.

Cuban's amateur boxers are regarded as the best in the world but ever since Castro's ban in the early 1960s a Cuban boxer who wishes to turn professional is faced with the agonising decision of defecting from his homeland, leaving his family behind and being unable to return for many years.

Speaking as the current Cuban Olympic boxing team was training in Belfast ahead of London 2012, Cruz reflects on how he ended up living in Ireland.

"The Cuban Boxing Association asked me to train the Irish amateur boxing team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. I fell in love with Ireland and Irish boxing and returned many times in the coming years," he said.

Northern Ireland's boxing tradition

A highlight of Cruz's stewardship of the Irish team was the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. One of the success stories was Belfast's Wayne McCullough, aka "The Pocket Rocket", who won a silver medal at the Games. McCullough went on to turn professional and became WBC World Bantamweight Champion in 1994.

Cruz on Irish and Cuban similarites

"Wayne McCullough was an amazing fighter. He was the most dedicated, hardest training fighter I ever met. You couldn't stand in front of him - he would take your head off," Nicolas said.

"I got a real insight into the quality of the people in Northern Ireland and how good their boxing facilities are. That is one of the reasons the Cuban team are in Belfast training for the Olympics," he said.

"The idiosyncrasies and culture of the Irish and Cuban people are very similar, both have a great fighting spirit and a lot of courage," he said.

He quickly came to realise there were fundamental differences in their boxing styles, which he put down to Ireland's inclement weather and the Cubans' superior dancing ability!

"The weather here is cold so you need to walk fast to keep yourself warm, which can make the fighter more tense. Cuban boxers generally come into the ring stress free. The Cuban boxers always have excellent rhythm, with their Salsa dancing background helping."

Defecting from Cuba

He eventually became a victim of his own success with the Irish team, as he maintains the Cubans started to feel threatened by the Irish achievements.

"In 1996 the boxing authorities in Cuba decided they would take back Cuban coaches who were working with countries which could take medals from them in the Olympic games in Atlanta, so they refused me permission to train the Irish team", he said.

Nicolas then made the heartbreaking decision to leave his family behind in Cuba to set up life in Ireland as a boxing coach in March 1996.

"I felt I had to go to make a living, but if you defect from Cuba you cannot apply for a visa to return for at least five years and I didn't have the resources to bring my family including my young daughter and son with me to Ireland," he said.

Cruz went through a very difficult period in his life, including the break up of his marriage. The disappointment of not being able to coach the Irish boxing team at the Atlanta Olympics only added to his despair.

"I felt I had nothing to look forward to, so I got a rope and decided that one of the trees at the back of the National Stadium in Dublin would be an appropriate place for it because that's where everything had started," he recalls.

A meeting with a Buddhist monk at the gym was the catalyst for Nicolas to begin to see he might have something to live for.

Symbolically, Cruz decided to tear that same rope into three pieces. He then tied the pieces together and used it for a boxing exercise in the gym in which the boxers bob and weave around it.

"I carried that rope around until it was no good anymore", he said.

Devastatingly for Cruz his father died during his forced expulsion from Cuba.

"I just wanted to be there for the last moments of my father's life but it was impossible," he remembers.

Teofilo Stevenson

The recently deceased Teofilo Stevenson is regarded by many as the greatest Cuban boxer of all time, winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals from 1972 to 1980.

He is arguably most famous for turning down the opportunity to become professional and fight Muhammad Ali. Stevenson stayed loyal to the Cuban revolution, which outlawed professional sports with the memorable line: "What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?"

While Cruz has great respect for the stance Stevenson took he urges understanding of those boxers who decide that an Olympic medal and the adulation of their people is not enough.

He knows from his own painful experience if you defect from Cuba you are regarded as a traitor.

"When I finally left Cuba in 1996 I held my head high but deep down in my heart I knew I was a traitor because I had turned my back on my country. Money isn't everything but if you don't have it you are in trouble. I had to try to make a decent living for my family."

Life in Cuba under Castro

After Cruz's harrowing story he could be forgiven for feeling embittered towards Fidel Castro and Cuba but this is not the case. In fact he speaks positively about some of the changes Castro made when he came to power in 1959.

"For the first time black people in Cuba were free to walk anywhere and have access to everything without being discriminated publicly.

"Education was available to all and our healthcare system was second to none.

"When I return home I keep a low profile because I feel guilty that I haven't been there fighting with my fellow countrymen against the most powerful nation in the world with the trade embargo of the last 50 years," Cruz said.

Cruz now works in a prison in Portlaoise, south of Dublin.

The prison provides a reminder of how difficult life was for Cruz when he left Cuba.

"I felt that I used to live in an open prison, I could go out the front gate but I could not see my family."