It’s easy to say Cuba is complicated. Which part, exactly, is often a little harder to define.
For those who live far from the island, there are a lot of questions. “Well, how do they actually feel about communism?” or “How long will it be until I can visit?” or even just, “How do they keep those classic cars running?” The standard questions, if you will. You can ask the Internet and you’ll get an answer. For Rene Lecour, though, the first question was a little different. “How do you keep a skateboarding scene alive in a country without skate shops?”
He’d just returned from a trip to Havana with his son, and he was struck by the experience. He’d found a skate scene that was alive, but struggling. Skaters were using boards that weren’t just worn and weathered, they were jerry-rigged and homemade from whatever was available. He knew he wanted to help. He ran a Miami skate shop — he could probably get them some boards. As a first-generation Cuban American, it felt like his place to contribute. “They could probably use food, and they could probably use medicine. I’m not a grocer and I’m not a doctor. I’m a skater. So I’m gonna give them skateboards.” It wasn’t a difficult decision.
But for a brief moment, he hesitated. There were no guidelines or rulebooks. There wouldn’t be much help. The Cuban government, he imagined, would not be thrilled. He was right, of course. Skateboarding was — and remains — all but outlawed on the island. So he founded Amigo Skate, an organization dedicated to fostering the Cuban skate scene.
That was a little over five years ago. Since then, Lecour and Amigo Skate have run 16 trips to the island, delivering literal tons of decks, wheels, hardware, and gear – everything from t-shirts to shoes. For him, it’s a pretty simple system: “We take skateboarding equipment down into Havana and we try and give away as much product as we can,” he explained in a 2015 interview with The Hundreds.
Amigo Skate is still an “underground, punk rock operation.”
“We also host events down there, we’ve hosted a tattoo expo/art show, a bunch of skate contests, and we just try and spread the word. Skateboards, decks, wheels, building and renovating Havana’s skateparks.” Cuban authorities used to regard him with a bit of suspicion, what with Amigo Skate working in a legal gray area. “We’re not a 501(c)(3) or anything. We’re just skaters,” he says.
Partly by necessity and partly by design, Amigo Skate is still an “underground, punk rock operation.” Technically, the roughly seven tons of gear he’s brought to the island over the years has been smuggled, everything crammed into so many suitcases it borders on the comical. The government seems to understand that the skate scene is progressing at a rate it can’t contain or control, making for a combination of real hope, false promises, and increasing friction.
Plans to renovate skate parks in Havana have stalled several times, leaving existing spots like the Patinódromo, built in a drainage ditch. In the rainy season, it’s not uncommon to have to weave through massive puddles that collect around ramps. The lack of usable resources makes for some impressive solutions, like mismatched halves of skate decks bolted together with plywood, but it can also mean that skaters might actively avoid trying new tricks that could risk their boards. Better to stick the same tricks and same board than break it and have none at all. That’s no way for a scene to progress.
Lecour’s efforts have gained some local influence over time, and the Cuban government, which used to see him as a passing amusement, is now openly irritated. “They almost arrested me at the last competition we held, showed up and shut it down,” he says.
“We’re turning into Cuban Robin Hoods, giving everything away for free.”
The rest of the trip didn’t go much better. “I had to lay low the last few days. The state police was calling every house I stayed at looking for me. It was a little scary.” But one of the main reasons he runs events at all is because few attend the government ones. “They can do their own comps and they’ll get 15, 20 guys from around the block. We put out the word, we’ll have 200 people busing from around the island just to see what’s going on.” He sounds exasperated just talking about it.
Then his tone changes. “We’re turning into Cuban Robin Hoods, giving everything away for free.” He relishes the title. You can hear his pride for the organization’s rogue roots in his voice. Lecour’s certainly not trying to overthrow the government, but one of the hallmarks of communism is state control over resources and ideas, and — in his own way — his inflow of contraband and mass assembly challenges that.
The truth is that the island is changing faster than anyone can admit; President Obama is visiting next month and commercial flights from the United States are returning soon. When I mention I want to visit, Lecour’s answer is a curt “Run, don’t walk.” His success there is a testament to major shifts Cuba has undergone — and to how vibrant the Cuban skate community has always been, crumbling ramps and all. It’s a DIY scene borne from the leftover boards of Soviet troops vacating the island in the early 80s. Except there weren’t many boards, so they had to improvise from day one, bolting roller skate wheels to planks of wood. If you wanted to skate, you often had to build your board yourself; there’s never been the remote prospect of commercial success from it. It’s stoked the way it’s supposed to be – skaters just happy to be out there.
On an island chock full of skate spots, surfable waves, and 330 sunny days per year, it’s no surprise that the scene is thriving. Whatever the future holds, the embattled island is a miniature haven for the kind of innovation and creativity we could all probably use, skateboarding or otherwise.