How a Cuban exile restaurant owner in Florida and Sen. Marco Rubio helped a Cuban boxer defect

The amazing story of how a Cuban exile, Sen. Marco, Rubio, and several other people worked together to help Cuban boxer Robeisy Ramirez escape communist Cuba.

Via Sports Illustrated:

Immigrant Song

The boxer, the restaurateur, the detective and the accountant—they never planned all of this. Not exactly, anyway. How could anyone? The improbable intersection of their lives began like a walked-into-a-bar joke and unfolded like something closer to a Jason Bourne movie. Sure, they knew that helping a two-time Olympic gold medalist defect from Cuba to the U.S. would require an abundance of cash, patience and kismet. But drug cartels and military checkpoints? An immigration march and Marco Rubio?

It all started with a phone call in June 2018. The boxer, 24-year-old Robeisy Ramírez, saw the professional future that awaited him should he make it to the open market, where boxing’s top promoters were salivating over his dominant Olympic runs. From an amateur tournament in Germany he dialed a restaurant in Gulfport, Fla., and asked for the owner, a woman he knew only by her reputation: deft, harried, brilliant. Maybe, by her own admission, a little loco. Ramírez knew one other thing about Jo Hastings. She’d built a side hustle as a liberator of Cuban athletes.

“I understand that you can help me,” Ramírez said in Spanish, explaining that he wanted to defect to the U.S. and that he’d found her through a friend of a friend.


Jo’s family escaped to the U.S. over 50 years ago, when she was four, immigrating from Cuba to St. Petersburg, with a nine-month stopover in Mexico City to apply for visas. As an adult she worked as a flight attendant, peddled kitchenware and authored a Cuban cookbook, her recipe for cream cheese flan winning her $10,000 from Southern Living. In 1991 she married Hastings (a CPA and spin class teacher who survived Stage 4 throat cancer) and together they moved into a big house with an iron gate, a sprawling lawn and a pool. They rescued nine cats and two pit bulls, and Jo opened Habana Café in ’97, in Gulfport, close to the spring training headquarters for a half-dozen baseball teams.


In Florida, Jo was trying everything she could to ensure a successful interview in Tijuana. She reached out to various boxing promoters—maybe someone could help grease the wheels—but her most promising lead went silent. That left her one option, a total long shot as she saw it, considering the President’s stance on immigration. “F— it,” she told her husband. She would beg a politician for help. “I’m calling Marco Rubio’s office.” And, to her surprise, the Republican Florida senator’s office engaged.

“This is going to sound crazy. . . .” Jo told one of Rubio’s aides. She shared Rocky’s story and mentioned that her restaurant had hosted Rubio for a fund-raiser during his first senatorial campaign, in 2010; how he’d told everyone about growing up as the son of a bartender and a housekeeper, reaching Washington only through sweat equity and a few breaks. Rocky just needed that kind of chance.

Rubio has a team in place to examine the myriad requests like Jo’s. For the most worthy candidates seeking U.S. asylum, he will send a letter to the State Department officers reviewing those applications. One such letter went out for Rocky, noting his boxing abilities and the potential for him to sign with a promoter, which would earn him the permanent visa granted to professional athletes.

There’s no way to know the letter’s full impact for certain, but Jo believes Rocky would have been rejected in Tijuana without it. A visa was granted. (Rubio asked for nothing in return; he declined an interview request for this story.)

Read the entire story HERE.