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Yoel Romero, Hector Lombard excited about improvement of U.S.-Cuba relations

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

President Barack Obama announced recently that the United States would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. The U.S. will open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than 50 years and negotiations are ongoing about lifting the 54-year-old trade embargo.

The news came as a surprise to many, including UFC fighters and Cuba natives Hector Lombard and Yoel Romero. Both men defected from Cuba to further their MMA careers and are excited about the possibility of U.S. relations with their home country being mended.

"It's great news for all the Cuban families and everybody that is Cuban," Romero told MMA Fighting through a translator. "People from Cuba have a lot of hurt in their heart. Many of their family members have died crossing the Caribbean. It's very dangerous. I wouldn't want to wish it on anybody. Little kids crossing the Caribbean in canoes, they make up floats out of air mattresses. It's incredible. The people in Cuba are really hurt. This is really great news and could bring a lot of happiness to families living in Cuba. They could come here like regular people and not have to worry."

Romero, a former Olympic silver medalist for the Cuban wrestling team, defected to Germany in 2007. Lombard was an Olympic judoka for Cuba and defected to Australia in 2004. Both men still have family members in the country and hope for a better life for them.

"One of the reasons I didn't want to go back is it's painful," Lombard told MMA Fighting. "It's painful to see so much poverty. And me being OK, I wouldn't forgive myself. A lot of people are OK with it. They go over there and show up, show off and drive a nice car, have a lot of stuff, jewelry. I wouldn't feel happy with myself to go over there and show off in front of people and be OK with it. One of the reasons why I never went, there's so much poverty I wouldn't feel happy with myself. You feel guilty. I went through it and it's no fun."

Trade opening up between the U.S. and Cuba would certainly help the Cuban economy. And the ability for Cubans to emigrate freely would also be beneficial -- especially for athletes. Romero and Lombard both believe there could be an influx of Cuban fighters in the UFC if that happens. There is a surplus of excellent athletes in the country, they said.

"If they are allowed to leave Cuba and come to the U.S., I think it'll be a great opportunity for a lot of athletes," Romero said. "It'll have to be their choice, but if they do make the choice, it would be a great opportunity for them. I don't know much about baseball, but in MMA there are better gyms here and better coaching. There's more room to grow in the sport. In Cuba, they are more limited and it is more difficult and different."

Both Romero and Lombard said they would look into the possibility of bringing family members over to the U.S., if those relatives so choose. Both of them enjoy their lives in Miami, a Cuban hotbed. Lombard does not paint a nice portrait of what life is like in Cuba.

"Imagine waking up in the morning and not having anything to eat, nothing to wear," Lombard said. "That's tough.

"I hope it helps the Cuban people. They've had a tough time for so many years. Trust me, it's no fun to live there, honestly."

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