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The Cuban Muscle Crisis
“This body has not been made with steroids or protein drinks,” spits the bronzed, hulking figure standing over me.” He arches his back and lurches forward into a full flex of his upper body, gazing down at his puffed-out chest and arms like steel rope. It’s 90 degrees and the air is dense with humidity. The sweat makes his body shine if he’s oiled up for competition. “You people have to use drugs to get this,“ he says. “You cheat.” Then he lowers himself to a crude black weight bench and begins pressing up 300 pounds in short, irritated thrusts.
Meet Cuban bodybuilding champion Sergio Jose Antonia. Like many in the Cuban muscle community, he has long been convinced that all successful bodybuilders in the U.S. and other wealthy nations are artificially pumped up on performance enhancers. And while that perception might be an exaggeration, it highlights a kind of angry pride that keeps Sergio and his peers motivated. Steroids, after all, are nearly impossible to find here, let alone pay for. And that’s to say nothing of the more standard trappings of weightlifting — everything from supplements to proper equipment. Still clinging to Castro’s vision of a tropical communist paradise and crippled by U.S. sanctions, Cuba is one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere. The average monthly wage is less than $20, and people drive 50-year-old cars held together by wire coat hangers. And yet, such adversity breeds a kind of steely ingenuity and drive to succeed despite it all. Cubans call the daily struggle to survive “La Lucha” — the wrestling.
We are standing in the Ernest Hemingway community gym in the town of Cojimar, a dozen miles east of Havana, where the great writer kept his fishing boat, the Pilar. In the gym, hidden from the sun under a corrugated asbestos, weight machines are bolted to a dusty concrete floor. At first glance they look no different from those in any gym around the Western world, but as I look closer I start noticing pieces of metal welded in odd places, thick layers of black tractor grease on the cables, clusters of rust on the weights.
“In everything from food to workout machines, here in Cuba we have to make do with what we can get,” says Angel Delgado Montesino, 35, a former Havana bodybuilding champion and one of the co-owners of the gym. Almost every machine here, he tells me, has been built from materials salvaged from a garbage dump, found corroded in some cobwebbed corner, or simply liberated, no questions asked. The pec dec, for example, was constructed from the steel pillars of an iron cargo container and some electrical cable. The chin-up bar is made of security railings from an apartment window. Look down at the footplate of the hack squat machine and the tadpole-shaped relief on the metal looks a lot like the floor of a truck. The rowing machine has been fashioned from the shell of a bus, the bench from an iron gate.
Angel decided to build this gym here in 2002 together with three friends – Roberto Carlos Blanco, whose gold chains give him a passing resemblance to Al Pacino in Scarface; Larazo, a thickset guy with a gentle demeanor; and Lester Perez, a gangly student whom the others like to tease. But in a country where bodybuilding is looked upon as a decadent exercise in vanity, a sport that glorifies the individual as opposed to society, the obstacles were many.
First, Angel and his friends had to win approval from the local communist committee, who run their housing block – a grim, mildewed edifice that looks like something out of mid-century Warsaw, but was the only space of land available. After months of negotiations, many entreaties and hurdles of bureaucracy, the men were given free access to a patch of wasteland between the buildings, and they began to scrimp, save, beg, borrow, and steal to get what they needed.
Then they started building, brick by brick, and slowly, over three long years, the place came together. Because it takes a special permit to buy cinder blocks in Cuba, Angel decided they’d make their own at a cost of 50 cents per brick. Angel was already a commercial welder, so he built the weight machines himself from scrap metal the others were able to forage. “I looked at pictures from American bodybuilding magazines and catalogues and engineered everything from those,” he explains. Then there was the matter of decorations. Angel had a local artist paint lavish murals on the walls: portraits of Ernest Hemingway and elegantly scripted quotes from Fidel Castro, Thomas Jefferson, and the heroic Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti.
When I visit, the gym has been open for just a few weeks. Angel’s girlfriend, TKNAME, is running a daily aerobics class in a bare studio next door to the weight room. She wears tight lycra, and her mane of glossy black hair bounces in a pony tail as 20 women from the housing block work out to Cuban salsa greats such as Los Van Van. In the weight room, Sergio works out in his work boots, unable to afford sneakers. Others are in threadbare T-shirts, but somehow they all manage to make the $5 a month membership.
“Look,” explains Roberto, “I only have enough money to buy food for a certain amount of repetitions. I can’t afford to work on my legs. And I need new shoes.” He points down to his Adidas sneakers, held together with duct tape. “But at $100 it would take me all year to save enough to be able to afford them.”
For Sergio, 39, the Cuban champ, it has been a long, hard road to achieving the Charles Atlas look. He lives in a two-room apartment nearby and works as a security guard. He eats big bowls of spaghetti for energy but usually can’t afford meat to go with all those carbs. Like most Cubans, he gets his protein from a once-weekly serving of fish, eggs, or chicken. When he won the 90kg bodybuilding competition last year at the America Theater in Havana he was faced with a crucial decision two days before the tournament. “I had saved up to buy fish before the competition,” he explains. “But two days before, my daughter got sick. I had to make the choice between eating the fish or giving it to her. Of course, I gave it to her.”
Still, the new gym has been a godsend for Sergio. Until now, he’s had to travel into Havana every other day to work out in one of the ascetic state-run gyms which has a few free weights and little else. They journey would take him hours on highly unreliable public transportation. “When I started this I just wanted to feel good,” he says. “But now it has become my life. The gym makes the training I need possible and for the others too. When I started I had to make my own machine from a weight and a bicycle sprocket. Now at least we have the machines we need.”
A few days after my visit, the gym suffers a big blow. Apparently, one of the Communist party members took exception to the painted quote from Thomas Jefferson. Entrance is suspended until further notice. I pay another visit and find Roberto outside, dejectedly kicking loose stones across the ground. “Angel is smoking cigarettes all the time and can’t sleep,” he says. “We don’t know what will happen.”
Two days later the offending quote is painted over and the gym is back in business. I catch up with Sergio outside. He’s beaming. “We may not have much, but we have heart and we have courage,” he says. He throws his hand up in a triumphant wave as he heads in for a workout.