Havana – Tucked in a remote corner of the city’s sprawling Parque Metropolitano, Yojany Pérez and other skaters are gathered on a hazy and humid afternoon at the bottom of a dried-up, concrete lakebed.
Ramps, boxes and rails in all sorts of disrepair lay in a seemingly random order on the lake’s dusty floor, waiting for the skaters to ramp, grind and ride them under the blistering sun in Havana’s only skatepark.
Like the ubiquitous late-50s Chevys and Fords still rolling around on Havana’s streets, the make-shift nature of the park is a potent reminder of the Cuban talent for reclaiming, refitting and refurbishing things. The park’s graffiti – nearly unheard of in revolutionary Cuba unless state-sanctioned – hints at the small freedom these skaters enjoy.
“When I skate I forget the world, I forget the problems, I forget the hunger, the thirst,” said the 22-year old Pérez.
In response to government control – where you live, whom you associate with, when you can travel – skateboarding has become a break for these kids from the constant panoptic eye of the regime. And it attracts new converts everyday.
“It’s getting huge now, people are beginning to skate all over the island,” said Che Pando, a skater/tattoo artist regarded as the sport’s godfather in Cuba.
Pando estimates that there are 1,000 skaters in Cuba, which may not seem like much. But considering the difficulty in obtaining gear and the fact that Cuba’s population is only 11 million people – about on par with Beijing – it’s a fairly impressive number.
We skate because its fun. It’s a way to feel free.
- Rodney "El Loco" Ramos, Cuban skater
After one of Pérez’s friends comes crashing down after failing to land a heelflip, Pérez rolls down the ramp and up another quarterpipe. He pulls his trucks up on the metal coping and grinds across it, his hair forming a tornado around his head.
He drops back in the ramp with ease and rolls up the other side, kicks his board in the air and watches as it rotates horizontally underneath him before slamming his feet back on the deck, landing the kickflip and rolling down the ramp amid the cheers of friends.
A Frustrated Baseball Player
With all the changes that Cuba has gone through since an ailing Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother Raúl in 2006, it seems ironic that a sport once universally considered as anti-establishment and underground would begin to flourish in this big brother state.
Since 2006, Raúl Castro has loosened restrictions on travel, business and private ownership; allowing for a slight shift in the country’s hardline socialist stance, a bulwark of Cuba’s one-party system since the 1959 revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista and put Fidel Castro in power.
Coinciding with the thaw in restrictions, the Cuban government – struggling to keep itself afloat financially – has cut funding to many of the nation’s once-heralded social and cultural programs, including, and maybe most importantly for the country’s psyche, sports.
“Sports form a real big part of the Cuban ethos and image,” said Christopher Sabatini, the senior policy director at the Council of the Americas. “Fidel himself was a frustrated baseball player who tried out for a minor league team to play for the Yankees.”
Along with a 94.9 percent literacy rate and universal health care, one of the revolution’s proudest achievements over the past 50-plus years has been its accomplishments in sports. Whether it was the endless supply of talented players coming off the country’s baseball diamonds (many of whom have since defected to Major League Baseball) or the nation’s triumphs on the Olympic stage, the Castro regime has used sport to showcase Cuba to the world.
Sport in Cuba, however, began its nosedive after the fall of Soviet Union when much of its cash flow and access to sports science was cut off. While the country continued – and still does – to produce an amazing amount of athletic talent for such a small country, the development of athletes and athletic programs was deeply bruised during this so-called “Special Period.”
“For thirty years, the regime has used as a justification the success of its three social pillars – health care, education and athletics,” wrote S.L. Price in his seminal book on Cuban sports, “Pitching Around Fidel.” Defections by the island's most prized athletes and their vehement anti-Castroism added to the sting that Cuban sports felt, Priced added.
Even with Cuba’s triumph during the 1991 Pan-American games, sports drift into the backseat seemed inevitable as Cubans faced shortages in gasoline, food and other goods they had become accustomed to.
“A few years ago a hurricane came and wiped out a lot of the island, but you couldn’t buy a bag of cement, unless you got it on the black market, so imagine how it was to rebuild your homes,” Pando said. “It’s difficult man.”
As Cuba limped into the 21th century, the focus on sports continued to wane as Raúl assumed power.
“Raúl doesn’t like to spend money on anything,” Pando said. “It was Fidel. He was more about the public outside Cuba that we are the first ones in sport in the world.”
“If you read news about sports in Cuba now you’ll realize that we’re not doing so well anymore because there is not any money for it,” he added.
23 y G
For those not accustomed the Caribbean climate, the humidity can be stifling. With air conditioning in the country sparse, Cubans tend to spend their free time some place with a good breeze.
For many in Havana that is the Malecón, the four-mile breakwater along the city’s coast that stretches from Havana Harbor to the decaying art deco neighborhood of Vedado.
Skaters, however, seem to shun the breeze in favor of an area a little farther into Vedado.
In the daytime, the cross streets 23 and G form a busy intersection with buses and cabs picking riders up, cheap lunch places serving sandwiches and sodas and students packing the local cafes for a mid-afternoon cocktail. But at night, the place becomes a gathering spot for couples, party-goers, artists and skaters to meet and coexist in strange, symbiotic harmony among the darkened corners of the intersection’s sparse plaza.
Skaters with names like El Loco and El Vampiro sit on their boards, sipping strong Bucanero beers, smoking cigarettes and whistling at the seemingly never-ending flow of beautiful women in short dresses parading by.
“I love this place. I hang out here, drink a beer and look at girls. It’s a perfect way to spend time,” said Ruddy Matias, a Dominican-born skater who went to school in Cuba.
The intersection, Cuba’s version of Philadelphia’s Love Park or Portland’s Burnside skatepark, has since the 1990s been a meeting ground for the country’s nascent skate community and hub for it’s burgeoning underground scene.
The sport began to emerge in Cuba in the 1980s, just before the wholesale changes that crippled the country’s economy and populace took a stranglehold on the island.
Much like the early days of skateboarding in the United States, the sport started as a popular activity for the island’s small surfing community when the waves went flat. After seeing the boards ridden by tourists, Pando and Cuba’s other skating pioneers began jury rigging their own skateboards out of scrapped wood and stealing wheels off abandoned rollerskates, carts or any other rolling object.
“It was like the 60s in California with steel wheels, going downhill, falling on your ass all the time,” Pando said. “I used to be a carpenter, a really bad one, but I would make my boards at my job.”
With skateboarding's emergence out of the underground in the 1990s thank to events such as the X-Games and the Gravity Games, skating in Cuba likewise began to gain more notoriety.
Havana’s early skaters were growing up and with it their skills. On hand-me-down and makeshift boards these skaters began landing tricks that anywhere else in the world would snag them sponsorships and magazine spots.
Word spread across the Straits of Florida of these skaters ripping it up on the last battleground of the Cold War and soon pro skaters like Rick McCrank and the MTV darling Ryan Sheckler made trips down to meet with Pando and other skaters. Skate shops in Florida now regularly bring boards down and a non-profit has been set up to bring donated equipment and help with the upkeep of Havana’s skatepark.
“It’s really difficult for skaters down there,” said Miles Jackson, the co-founder of the non-profit Skate Cuba. “A skate shop down there would be like a museum because nobody would be able to afford anything.”
Cracking Open the Iron Curtain
All around Havana you see it. People hustling whatever they can get their hands on.
This city is filled with restaurants run from people’s homes, private rooms for rent in every neighborhood, artists peddling their works in tourist hotspots and private vendors hocking everything from cigarettes to DVD's to black market Coca Cola.
With Raúl Castro opening a crack in the country to a smattering of free-market capitalist ventures and both Castro brothers admitting that change is inevitable, a movement toward private enterprise – and private wealth – has been slow, but steady.
“Raúl Castro is not his brother,” wrote Cynthia Gorney in a recent issue of National Geographic. “[T]here’s a particularly Cuban combination of excitement, wariness, calculation, black humor and anxiety that accompanies even the possibility of real change.”
As of now, disposable income in Cuba is something of an oxymoron and hustling is a way of life for many on the island. So at least for the time being Cuba’s skaters need to wait for visitors to bring supplies and continue to be crafty in making their boards.
For all the uncertainty in the country today, Cubans have moments of outright optimism, but always tinged with a bit of circumspection. Many believe that the communist government can’t last forever, some hope to travel 90 miles to the United States and others just take everything with a grain of salt because, at the end of the day, that’s Cuba.
“Life in Cuba for one part is good,” Pando said. “You don’t have the violence you have in Salvador or places like that. Public health care is really bad but it’s free, education is really bad but it’s free.”
“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future.”
No Sleep til Cuba
Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys and Iron Maiden blare out of a single, oversized speaker, distorting the sound of urethane wheels on metal ramps. In a nearby building a family birthday is going on complete with a costumed Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but in the grimy confines of the skatepark another type of birthday party is going on.
About a dozen kids stand near a slanted ledge over a set of five stairs, impatiently waiting their turn to impress the judges in the impromptu contest held in honor of Pando’s 40th birthday.
Pando, sitting next to his wife and some of the other older skaters, watches from the shade of a nearby awning with an amused sense of detachment as teenagers hurl themselves up on a ledge before nine times out of ten crashing onto the concrete floor. Despite his age, Pando doesn’t look like he has aged past 25, except for a bit of a receding hairline showing on his close-cropped buzzed head and the fading of the tattoos that cover his arms and legs.
It’s fitting for the man who has been involved with the skatepark – and the island’s skate community – since the beginning to celebrate his birthday (and previously, his wedding) there.
Started in 2000 when a group of BMX riders from the United States and Europe came down to Havana to give a demonstration, the park has shifted and moved from spot to spot thanks to puzzling whims of the country’s sports ministry, INDER. Since the mid-part of the last decade, however, the park seems to have finally found a permanent home, hidden away from the watchful eyes of Cuban authorities, allowing skaters, BMX riders and inline skaters to hone their skills in a relative peace.
“Before the park, we were all very divided and independent. It was like we were all living on different planets,” said Rodney “El Loco" Ramos, a local skater. “Now we’re almost always together, the BMX people with the skate people. We’re small but we’re always together.”
With all its propaganda, paranoia and CCTV, the Cuban government could look at its skaters for what ideal socialism is. There is no hierarchy, no haves and have-nots.
The only thing that distinguishes one skater from the next is skill; an order based on talent not wealth or social status. The sport is not about progressing in your standing in society or making money; it’s about progressing for the simple sake of progressing. And, to have fun.
“We skate because its fun,” Ramos said. “It’s a way to feel free. Skating on ramps or bombing down a hill, it’s all about freedom.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.