SKATING IN CUBA AFTER THE EMBARGO…

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“The thing that I hated in Barcelona is that nobody would talk to you,” Che said. “They’re all a bunch of pros, filming videos there, skating with their iPods on and not talking to anybody. That sucks. People are too concerned about how they can market themselves to be a professional and stuff like that. It’s turning into a job, and people are losing the passion.”

A brilliant look into Cuba’s skate scene by Daniel Oberhaus for Vice Sports.

It was high noon on a weekday in June, and I was sweating profusely as I fought my way through the dense, overgrown park that surrounds a massive sporting complex just south of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. I was searching for Cuba’s only skate park, rumored to be somewhere in the area, but every time I approached someone to ask for directions to the patinodromo, all I got was vague hand gestures in contradictory directions.

On the verge of succumbing to the heat and humidity, I heard the telltale clatter of polyurethane wheels on concrete. Pushing through the jungle scrub of palm and Marabou weed, I nearly fell face-first into an empty man-made pond. The patinodromo was in rough shape. Two thirds of it was unusable, covered in standing water and detritus. The remaining third was an amalgam of concrete ramps and benches, metal quarter pipes, pyramids, and a tower ramp. Murals and graffiti—mostly variations on the mantra “patina o muerte” (“skate or die”), a play on Che Guevara’s famous call to arms, “patria o muerte” (“homeland or death”)—decorated the park’s walls.

Three skaters sat in the shade on the far side of the park. A fourth landed an unenthusiastic kickflip and then joined his friends.

I asked them in broken Spanish whether the park was always so dead.

“It is midday in summer,” one of the skaters said, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his shirt. He said nothing more, so I took this to be an affirmation.

“So nobody skates in the summer?”

His friend smiled and reclined further into the shade, shielding the sun from his eyes. “You can try 23 y G, there’s always someone there.”

For decades, the intersection of 23rd and G streets in the Vedado neighborhood has been the most popular hangout for Havana’s frikis, the collective name for the city’s punks, metalheads, skaters, and other fringe communities. Each night, they turn the sidewalk promenade into a counter-cultural carnival, passing the evening with music, rum, and cheap cigarettes.

Soviet soldiers and the children of Eastern Bloc diplomats introduced skateboarding to the island in the 1980s, and a local skating culture soon sprung up—a tight-knit group of like-minded people. After the Wall fell, foreign influence continued to trickle into the community in the form of donated equipment. First generation Cuban-American Rene Lecour founded Amigo Skate, based in Miami, in 2009 to refurbish and distribute donated gear to Cubans, and to host competitions. With the American embargo now coming to an end, Lecour fears that the benefits of an open market—more equipment, more sponsorship opportunities, more access to the global skateboarding community—could come at a cost, fracturing the culture, fostering materialism, and making the sport prohibitively expensive. He recalled a scene in Godfather II:

“Remember when they’re celebrating Meyer Lansky’s birthday at the hotel, and the waiter brings out a cake in the shape of Cuba? They all cut into it, and everybody takes a bite. That’s what’s going to happen. Everyone who is going to take a bite is going to be from the outside, and the poor are going to get screwed,” he said. “If they’re not careful, it’s going to wreck that whole skateboarding community, and everything that turned people on about it will be gone.”

One of skateboarding’s earliest adopters, Che Alejandro remembers skating at 23 y G in the 80s. Back then, he had to make his own boards, using sandpaper-topped plywood retrofitted with steel wheels from 1940s-era roller skates. Thirty-odd years later, there are still no skate shops in Cuba.

“If your bearings or wheels are fucked, you’re fucked. You’re done,” Che told me, bluntly encapsulating the state of the Cuban skate scene today.

A shop in Havana would give skaters access to new gear, but Che isn’t convinced they could afford the merchandise. With the average Cuban salary hovering around $25 per month, a $30-plus deck would be a hefty purchase even for a wage-earning adult. Skaters haven’t had much to skate with, but thanks to organizations like Amigo Skate, with whom Che works, what they have had hasn’t cost them anything.

“Maybe you open up a shop, but it will be a non-shop. You can see all this stuff, but you can’t afford to buy it. The skaters have been so blessed in Cuba to be skating for free for so many years, that none of them are used to paying for anything,” Che said. “It might become so expensive here that you won’t be able to skate at all. It’s a tough situation, but what can you do?”

For now, organizations like Amigo Skate and Cuba Skate, which is based in Washington, D.C., will continue to outfit the Cuban skaters with donated gear. Typically, they rely on local distribution networks, giving products to the oldest skater within a group of kids, a sort of de facto leader, who then hands out the new shoes or decks to the skaters most in need.

Lecour said that, in the years since his first visit to Havana with donations in 2009, those longstanding traditions of distribution have been affected by an increased number of foreigners coming into the country. Certain groups bringing in gear, he said, “concentrate on a little pocket of skaters that help them promote themselves, and they only support those skaters.” He feels that the favoritism drives a wedge into what was a formerly tight-knit community.

Amigo Skate, working with community leaders like Che, is trying to maintain a system that Lecour says has been working for the past three decades. They both fear the corruption of what they consider a democratic method of getting skateboards in the hands of skaters. Several years ago, Che was in Spain, which has a strong skate culture, and had the opportunity to skate with a local crew. The high level of international talent, awash in sponsors and fans, portended, in Che’s eyes, a larger, corporate future for Cuba’s skate culture.

“The thing that I hated in Barcelona is that nobody would talk to you,” Che said. “They’re all a bunch of pros, filming videos there, skating with their iPods on and not talking to anybody. That sucks. People are too concerned about how they can market themselves to be a professional and stuff like that. It’s turning into a job, and people are losing the passion.”

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Most skaters in Cuba are optimistic about the end of the embargo. They welcome the influx of gear, the opportunities to skate for American companies, and the possibility of a skate shop and a better skate park. They’ll have access to the international skating community, and that will help grow the sport in Cuba. Lecour, however, has reservations about how much the changes will benefit local skaters.

“In Cuba the word they use for hookers is jinetera and if you’re trying to get something for free then you’re jinetiando. That’s what the kids say they’re doing when foreigners come with skateboards,” said Lecour. “They have to kind of prostitute themselves… They feel helpless because they don’t know when the next person is coming in with [skating gear].”

Miles Jackson, the co-founder of Cuba Skate, sees his organization’s role as critical to maturing the sport, although he would also like to see Cuban skaters depend less on donations. Importing tools along with decks, trucks, and wheels, he believes, would allow the Cubans to become self-sufficient.

While skaters like Che fear that foreign influence compromises the Cuban-ness of the country’s skate scene, Jackson sees it as an inherent part of the sport’s expansion there.

“A lot more people are supporting skateboarding, and now there’s all these little cliques that have kind of fractured the bigger sense of family,” Jackson said. “But I think it’s good. For any kind of growth, you’d want to see skateboarding not just in one neighborhood or plaza, but all over the island. I think [the scene] is just going through some growing pains right now.”

Jackson has been working with the U.S. State Department to coordinate the logistics of importing construction materials to the island to build an official skate park to supplement Havana’s cobbled-together patinodromo, along with tools like wood presses that would allow Cubans to manufacture decks locally. He’s also been speaking with Cuban officials about having skateboarding recognized as an official sport on the island.

At the end of the day, however, Jackson acknowledges that the onus ultimately falls on Cuban skaters to develop their sport.

“These young kids are good skaters, but they need to mature as members of society,” said Jackson. “They need to go out and create [pro-skate] organizations and speak for themselves. The government’s not just going to come out to a group of 50 kids and say ‘Wow, we think you’re awesome, what can we do to help you?’ You have to fight for that.”

Photos Chris Miller

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