Cuban state media recently announced new customs restrictions on the amount of items allowed in the country through commercial travel. While the government says that the new rule is intended to cut down on a growing black market that undermines recent economic reforms, many fear unintended consequences. For example, the fledging Cuban skateboarding scene relies on skateboards and gear brought in from the outside world. Skaters on the island feel that the new rule may change their way of life. This is the second of a two part series on skateboarding in Cuba and its direct Miami connection.
For most Cuban skaters, a broken board means months of boredom. Unlike in America, where you can roll into the nearest skate shop to replace your gear, skaters in Cuba rely on outside support to keep up the supply of boards and equipment, which break often.
Enter Miami-based Amigo Skate.
Now a group of roughly 20, the organization essentially smuggles boards and equipment into the country. They rely on donations and are led by a former hip-hop DJ and self described, "vagabond," Rene Lecour.
Born in New York City, Lecour was raised with stories about the way Cuba used to be. After his parents split up, Lecour moved with his mother around the Deep South before spending some time in the Atlanta area. At school, he was an outcast, drawn to the edgy world of skateboarding and hip-hop, and one of the few non-blond haired kids around. "They thought I was Italian or something," Lecour said.
He ended up in Miami in the early 1990s and worked as a DJ in local clubs, winning Best DJ from New Times in 1999.
As he became more engrossed in American culture, Cuba faded farther from his dreams. "It just never crossed my mind to go to Cuba," said Lecour, who now manages skate parks for Miami-Dade County.
In 2009, his wife, son, and friend went with him on a trip to see skateboarders in Cuba. It was a graduation present to his son, who had done extensive research about people like Che Pando and Fernando Verdecia Maseda online.
"We spent 24 hours a day with the skaters," Lecour said. He also befriended Pando, bonding over their similar age and shared passion for skating.
After about of week of travel and skating, the group returned back to Miami. But Lecour and the rest were hooked. They wanted to do something to help the kids who love to skate.
"They're in prison," Lecour said. "And it's really hard for any type of person who needs to express themselves."
So Lecour formed Amigo Skate. A few times a year the group packs large duffel bags full of donated boards and flies into Cuba. Once there, they play dumb in the customs line, claiming that all the items are personal in nature, and walk into the country with large amounts of contraband. Lecour says that he's gotten it down to a science: he wears an outlandish outfit that includes a cowboy hat, Hawaiian shirt, flip flops with socks and a camera around his neck- the stereotypical American traveler. And so far, it's worked every time.
Chris Miller met Lecour in 2011 and has been involved with Amigo Skate since. A freelance videographer from Brooklyn, Miller has taken it upon himself to record the Cuban skateboard scene with the eventual goal of releasing a documentary.
"The sense that I got was that everyone was waiting for something. It's just a completely different sense of time," Miller said. "I'm here in New York and I have everything I could possibly want. They just have so many things going against them. If they break a board, then they have to wait months for someone to bring them a new one or they have to nail it together."
Miller went on his first trip to the island in May of this year. He's not fluent in Spanish but was still able to get around. As a skateboarder for over 20 years, Miller said he could connect with the people on the other side of the lens.
"In a place like that, being a skateboarder in Cuba is radical," Miller said. "People don't look at it very fondly."
He filmed the whole time he was there, often from a skateboard, and didn't witness any police intimidation. But then again, he also added that they "were moving too fast for anyone to really hassle us."
In the past few weeks, fears have been elevated on the island because of new restrictions that Lecour said will greatly hurt skateboard culture on the island. Lecour said the new restrictions include a limit on multiple items flown into Cuba, which would make the duffel bag practice nearly impossible to pull off.
"I really thought that positive changes were happening, and all of a sudden they sort of shut us down with these travel restrictions," Lecour said.
In a desperation move, a small contingent from Amigo Skate is traveling to Cuba in mid-August to lobby The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) to allow unlimited amounts of skateboard related imports and to recognize it as a sport. They also want to hold a national tournament in November.
In the meantime, though, some skaters can no longer take the constant fear and difficulty of being a skater on the island -- including one of the country's best, Fernando Verdecia Maseda.
"I left Cuba for a better future," Maseda said. He's been in the US for a little less than a year and a half now, and works at a car wash in Cutler Ridge. Much of his family is here, except for his father, who serves as a colonel in the Cuban police force. The elder Maseda did not agree with his son's decision to leave his native land at first, Fernando says, but has since come to terms with it.
Amigo Skate is also helping Cuban skaters here at home. On Maseda's third day in America, Lecour drove him to North Trail skate park at NW 7th St and 127th Ave.
"You should have seen his eyes," Lecour said. With a new skateboard and smooth concrete to ride, Maseda, the middle class Cuban boy who learned how to skate from a virtual Tony Hawk, started shredding. Some of the local American kids gathered for the show.
It was then, Maseda says, that he felt what America was like for the first time. It was different and exciting, but also strangely familiar. As he ripped with the determination of a bull that day, he couldn't help but think of home and long for his friends to have the same opportunity.
"When I skate, I feel happiness that I've never felt before," Maseda said. "I feel like I'm living free."
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See part one of this story: How new Cuban customs restrictions threaten to destroy the island's nascent skateboarding culture.
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