Royal 70 Surf Havana Cuba
A Cuban collective creating opportunities for Cuba's youth with extreme sports, music and art.
Surf Revolution Cuba – Huck Magazine 2009
This article originally appeared in Huck 15 – The Maya Gabeira Issue from summer 2009.
As relations thaw between Cuba and the US, and talk of lifting the blockade is in the air, Huck is thinking about how the blockade has affected young people and how their lives will change if it’s lifted. In this archive piece from summer 2009, we headed to Cuba to uncover the island’s underground surf scene.
Cuban surfers are among the most dedicated in the world, risking imprisonment to find materials and relying on donations from foreigners to get boards and leashes. Never mind the blockade.
Psssst, psssst…” Eduardo Valdés, head of the Asociación de Surfistas de Cuba, looks uncharacteristically shifty as he peers through a wire fence, trying to attract the attention of a worker at Cuba’s national plastic factory. It’s here that the island’s chairs, tables and packaging are produced and employees, like in every industry in Cuba, supplement their meagre wages by selling the materials of their trade on the black market. Pretending to take a cigarette break, a man sidles up to the fence three metres to the left of Eduardo. Looking in opposite directions, a rapid-fire exchange takes place.
“What you want?”
“Three bottles of resin.”
“No way, man. 30.”
“Wait for me outside the bar around the corner. Give me thirty minutes. I need the money now.”
Forty tense minutes later and the worker appears clutching a flimsy plastic bag containing three cylindrical shapes wrapped in newspaper, presumably the resin. Eduardo doesn’t check the packages are kosher – “The workers would rather have a repeat customer than rip you off” – but bundles them straight into his rucksack. The liquid booty secured, he makes a hasty retreat home to his workshop, where a longboard donated by a tourist is waiting for him to liberate all three bottles of resin onto its rough surfaces. If caught, both parties could face time in prison, an inconceivable fate for Cuba’s affable, wave-loving surf honcho but a risk he must nevertheless take each time he produces a new board for the island’s diminutive but dedicated surf community.
“It’s stressful but what choice do I have?” he says. “Resin’s not for sale in Cuba. You have to steal it or buy it from a worker. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be able to make boards.” Cuban surfers aren’t the only ones lining the pockets of the plastic factory workforce. After the release of The Fast And The Furious – a film most Cuban men saw on bootleg DVD – car modification took off, leaving surfers in competition with car modifiers who use the resin to mould oversized bumpers. Consequently, the black market price shot up to approximately 10-12CUC per bottle, a third of a doctor’s monthly wage. “As if the workers care about the development of the surf scene,” says Eduardo. “They just want to make money and people into car customising seem to have a lot more than us.”
The American trade embargo – preventing Cuba from buying everything from medicines to food to resin for surfboards – has effectively strangled the Cuban economy. Cubans cannot buy from or sell to America, and foreign subsidiaries of American companies are also banned from trading with the island nation. As a result, Cubans have had to get creative and find alternative ways to get hold of the most basic goods. The lengths surfers like Eduardo have to go to secure raw materials linked to their passion is the warp and weft of daily life here. Everyone is an expert law dodger, fixer and hustler. Excluding the mangy items included in the weekly food ration, all Cubans, from revolution-loyal old ladies to MTV-influenced teens, buy pretty much everything – yoghurt, meat, music, clothes, cars, electrical equipment – from enterprising comrades on the black market. Since Raúl Castro took over from Fidel in February 2008, he has relaxed laws allowing nationals to buy previously banned items like cell phones, PC’s and toasters (apparently the electrical grid couldn’t previously cope with mass toaster ownership). No one can afford this swag unless they’re engaged in illegal shenanigans, receive remittances from friends and family abroad, or have a steady income of CUC, the currency that is supposed to be exclusively used by foreigners but isn’t. Give a beggar a peso, the currency supposedly used by Cubans, and he’ll fling it back at you in disgust.
Unlike in the West, the hoop-jumping nature of obtaining stuff (and CUC to buy stuff) separates the wheat from the chaff. Cuban surfers aren’t doing it on a whim or to buy into a ‘cool lifestyle choice’. They’re doing it because they’ve fallen head over heels in love with the feeling of wave beneath board and are prepared to lurk around plastic factories, risk prison terms and rotate five boards among twenty surfers in order to get their fix. Although he has no other job – “I’d be broke even if I worked so I might as well not work and be one hundred percent dedicated to surf” – Eduardo charges nothing but the cost of materials to shape boards. “Everything I use, all the tools from the mask to the drill, sander, the boards themselves, have been given as presents from surfers abroad,” he says. “It would be wrong for me to make money off it and besides, I’m a surfer, I understand the frustration of sitting on the shore with no board to ride.”
The Asociación de Surfistas de Cuba is Cuba’s sole surf organisation. It’s not technically ‘official’ – although its thorough website Havanasurf-cuba.com would have you believe otherwise. They have been in talks with the Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) for years about starting a surf school to no avail as yet. To maintain this quasi-recognition, Eduardo uses an email account he purchased from a nurse, and the website is managed by coach Bob Samin, an Australian who lives between Cuba and India. Samin updates it whenever he is out the country as cyber cafes in Cuba are outrageously expensive and home internet connections are seemingly scarce, although if you hang with enough young people you’ll definitely come across illegally rigged home connections. There are surfers scattered across the country,but the core community of twenty regular riders reside in Havana. Their regular riding spot is Calle 70 in Miramar, a five-minute drive from Eduardo’s house.
The ten surfers that have come to represent the scene look like they could be from anywhere in the world, all decked out in their most treasured surfwear – scuffed Vans, board shorts and baseball caps – scored from visiting surfers or friends and family abroad. The group’s casual friendliness, relaxed attitude to foreigners and absence of an agenda make them a refreshing posse to be with. Thirty-year-old dentist Danito – “Our only black surfer,” exclaims Eduardo – is still wearing his green medical smock. “To come I had to tell work my Grandma was ill,” he says with a wry grin. “When the waves are good, my Grandma gets ill a lot.”
As an entity the group are the picture of good health and, even though Jamaica is Cuba’s closest Caribbean neighbour, the absence of weed is notable. At 10CUC per pre-rolled joint, no one can afford to smoke and, even if they could, they’re too afraid of the repercussions to bother. “We’ve all tried it but we don’t have much of a drug culture in Cuba,” says one of them, who asks to remain unidentified. “There are addicts but no culture like in Europe or the US. We’re more into drinking. People make rum at home and sell it from their windows. It’s lethal.”
With mainstream media consumption limited to TV channels and newspapers, the crew’s knowledge of global surf culture has been drip-fed to them through DVDs, VHSs and magazines sent over or left by foreign surf enthusiasts. Some of the surfers download content from the Internet onto memory sticks that they share with friends by physically passing around – a sneakernet as opposed to an internet – as Cuba’s internet system is too slow and labouring to be pinging large files back and forth to friends who are rarely able to check email accounts anyway.
As we head down to Calle 70, squashed inside Danito’s majestic Chevy, they tell me about Cuba’s best surf spots. Guantánamo province at the opposite side of the island gets good ground swell. Yumurí, thirty kilometres east of Baracoa, has the best right in Cuba with Rio Duaba on the southern coast boasting good rights and lefts. Playa Mar Verde, Bella Pluma, Playa Verraco in Santiago de Cuba province all get good surf but work best when there’s a tropical low in the Caribbean. Despite all this info, most have never surfed outside Havana. Cubans rarely travel within their own country, except to the immediately surrounding locales, due to the high price of petrol. Bob Samin (who compiled the island’s recommended spots online) recommends hitching a lift on the back of a truck for a cheap and atmospheric sojourn.
Despite the lack of boards, which means surfers can go weeks without hitting the water, there’s no quibbling with the crew’s fitness and health. Cuba boasts the best selection of honed chests, thighs and arms I’ve ever clapped eyes on. A possible explanation: there is little for Cuban teenage men to do other than play sport and chase girls. Ninety percent of Havana’s nightclubs charge a CUC entrance price so the surfers can’t afford to get in and they laugh at the idea of going to the cheap national pesos cinemas. “They play old, rubbish movies,” protests Hubert, a twenty-eight-year-old skater and surfer and the local scene’s hot all-rounder. “We can’t afford the cinemas that play new American films, so we go to a friend’s who has a DVD player and watch a new bootleg movie. But mostly we spend our time surfing and skating. We’d go crazy otherwise.”
We’re now at Calle 10 and those with a board are getting ready to go for a surf. Before paddling out, Eduardo tells me about the passers-by that occasionally mistake their pending session for a desperate bid to swim to the US. “They shout, ‘Take me with you,’” says Eduardo. “And I’m like, ‘You crazy?’ I know the ocean. I understand how dangerous that crossing is. The people that get on rafts must be clueless. That or they’re insane. “They think the streets are paved with gold in the US and Europe. Sure we would love to travel, to be able to surf on the West Coast, Hawaii, and experience other cultures, but we know it’s no paradise. Every country has its own unique problems.”
Considering thousands have risked life and limb trying to leave you’d assume Cuba was a hellhole of a country with daily life nothing more than a cocktail of drudgery and misery. The reality is quite different. The weather is sweet, the landscape stunning and the focus paid to classical culture and the arts commendable. Everyone is fed, albeit some exclusively on the extremely meagre food rations, but no one is starving. The kind of poverty and violence which plagues every Latin American country – especially those that’ve subscribed to the Washington Consensus policies of trade liberalisation and aggressive capitalism – is nowhere to be found in Cuba. Cubans below the age of fifty are highly educated and everyone is entitled to free, world-class medical care as highlighted by Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko. The sort of social problems endemic in Europe and the US – homelessness, drug addiction, gun and knife crime, gangs, obesity, weird cancers caused by even weirder chemicals in processed food – are absent. On the street people seem happy. Salsa plays. People dance. Everyone is beautiful. But this is surface level shit and, understandably, those Cubans frustrated by the restrictions imposed on them by the regime and the blockade get highly irritated when foreigners bang on about these great assets.
Jose Juan, a club promoter who specialises in reggaeton parties for Cuba’s burgeoning wealthy young, sums it up succinctly: “If the government lived by the ideals they impose I’d respect them, but they’re hypocrites. I love how Fidel has refused to be bullied by the West, but the party’s policies are contradictory. Unless you’re content to just pick potatoes, ride your bicycle and make love to your girl, life in Cuba can be frustrating.” And a sure fire way to escape some of that frustration? Hit the waves, or in the case of Eduardo, the waves and the workshop.
In the basement of his house Eduardo toils away, shaping and sanding boards. The workshop looks like an Aladdin’s cave of usefulness with surfer chicks and page-three titillation covering the walls. Hammers, sanders and reclaimed rubbish jostle for space on the crammed, dust-covered work surfaces. Little is thrown away in Cuba, with everything reincarnated into something new once it fails to serve its original purpose. Dominating the garage is a massive workbench-cum-vice, one leg secured into a bucket of rubble, the other semi-cemented into a large, empty tomato tin. He used to make boards by reclaiming the foam from old American Westinghouse refrigerators, but since there are so few of these models left today he now relies on acquiring old longboards. It’s a rudimentary but effective system, old cheese graters used to shape the boards then smoothed off with sandpaper. Fibreglass is scavenged from local boat yards, glossed onto the boards then sanded off to a smooth finish.
“The waiting lists for boards is long but the good thing is it gives people time to save for the materials,” says Eduardo with a dry smile. “Even when you’re number one on the list it can take months to secure materials and get an old board donated. Only really dedicated people surf in Cuba, you have to really want it or you’d lose interest before you got started.” He smiles again. It is the kind of serene, content beam expressed by those whose calling in life – salsa, medicine, dance – can fortuitously exist in its true, purist form within the constraints of the regime and outside the commercialism of the West. “Life can be suffocating, so surfing is like oxygen. As long as we can surf, we can breathe.”
Text by Sarah Bentley
Photography © Babak Salari