Cuba Unedited – Alan Morrison
How it All Started
I had been dying to go to Cuba for years, it had fascinated me – the revolution, Fidel and Che, the US embargo, the fantastic music, the old cars, being a communist state 50 miles off the coast of the US, the Cuban missile crisis, the rum and cigars – it was an intoxicating mix. Finally when I was only a few years shy of 40 (and been skating for 25 of them by the way) I had enough money to make the trip. I have to confess I did not take a skateboard. Idiot, idiot, idiot! And when I was there I saw kids on scooters made from scrap wood with steel wheels – it was exactly like the old footage you see on “Dogtown and the Z-Boys” and the like of how skateboards had originated from these very type of scooters in 60’s California. I remember thinking when watching that footage that steel wheels must have been horrendous to use, and judging by the noise and lack of control of these kids I was spot on. I assumed that because of the poverty and the US-led trade embargo preventing any skateboards coming into the country that skating in Cuba had not yet formed and it was like time-traveling back to those 60’s Beach Boys days before skateboarding existed. I was gutted I hadn’t brought my board – imagine what it would be like skating somewhere where nobody had seen a skateboard – they would freak; and to cap it off Havana was oozing marble and smooth surfaces because pretty much nothing had been touched for 50 years leaving those old silky surfaces intact.
So the next time I ventured back to Cuba a couple of years later I made certain to take an old setup so that I could skate and then donate the board to one of those kids and magically skateboarding would be born in Cuba. I am, of course, a fool. Because strolling past the Capitol building (a replica of the US Capitol building) I bumped into 2 Cubans skating on modern (if rather battered) setups, sporting skate shirts and skate tattoos, 360 flipping and kick-flip manualling rather than scooting around on orange crate scooters with bleached hair and bare feet. These skaters’ names were Che and Alejandro and as soon as they spotted me they immediately greeted me – like skaters used to do in the 80’s – like a long lost brother. I was simultaneously gutted and elated. I wouldn’t be Marty McFly but I had stumbled across the Cuban skate scene and I was already part of it.
Che turned out to be the godfather of Cuban skating and at 30 years of age he had been skating for over 15 years – so he appreciated my old-school bag o’tricks. Alejandro turned out to be the best skater in Cuba and with a constant grin on his face it was ace fun skating with him. So I skated with them for a couple of days and learned of some of the hardships they faced to keep skating. And at the end of the trip I gave them my shitty setup and they were overjoyed – embarrassingly so ‘cos it was an ancient deck and wheels with no-name trucks because I knew I wouldn’t be taking it home. Che, a tattoo artist, offered to give me a tattoo in exchange, but time had run out, so I gave them my e-mail and over the next year I would receive an occasional e-mail from Che via some his friends – Cubans aren’t allowed access to the internet unless they worked for a company with permission, or they get it on the black market.
The situation in Cuba today reminded me of when I started street skating in the late 70’s. The initial skate “craze” had died. There were virtually no parks, virtually no skaters. Equipment was hard to find and expensive. You had to use it until it fell apart, then fix it and keep going. If you wanted a ramp to skate you had to steal the wood and build it. That is where Cuba is today. The only difference is that they know that skating is massive everywhere else and they can’t quite touch it. But going there made me remember how things used to be, and why I fell in love with skating. In the 80’s if you bumped into another skater you pretty much knew they were cool, because to skate was a struggle and a skateboard was considered a kiddy’s toy, so skaters automatically were people who followed their own path and did what they enjoyed not what would make them look good to Joe and Joanne public. The skaters in Cuba are a big family and they are all, give-or-take a smidgen, cool as fuck for those exact same reasons.
So pretty much every year since meeting Che and Alejandro myself and Sallie, my girlfriend, have gone back to Cuba and skated and hung out with real Cubans, and we love it.
Let me tell you a little bit about Cuba. Cuba is complete madness. It is unlike any other country on the planet. Havana is a city of beautiful buildings that are crumbling, beautiful old cars that clunk and smoke along the roads, huge buses made out of trucks (“camels” as they are known due to their twin-humped look), beautiful people of every race and every mix of every race, no billboards except political ones, no MacDonald’s, no KFC, trucks packed with hitchhikers instead of goods (the army have special personnel that stop empty trucks and load them with people on the highways), the best cigars and the best rum in the world, warm weather with occasional hurricanes, lots of art, lots of fantastic live music in every other bar – and all Cubans seem to be amazing dancers – people hanging out in parks and on the sea wall to socialise in the evening, restaurants set up in people’s houses, takeaways in the back door of other people’s houses, kids playing baseball on the street with broom handles and plastic bottle tops, shops with random products on display, and so on and so on. Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad I tell you. The first time there you walk around open-mouthed.
Cuba is very poor; the average Cuban gets maybe £10 a month in wages. Cubans are lacking in many of the modern day “essentials” that we enjoy, yet Cubans not only survive but they genuinely seem to enjoy life. They socialise, they smile, and they dance. But of course not that all Cubans are happy with their lot – despite not officially being allowed access to satellite TV and the internet they know what is happening in the world and they know what they are missing out on. Many older Cubans have huge respect for Fidel Castro because they remember what it was like before the revolution – and despite the current hardships many Cubans are much better off now then they were then. Younger people don’t hold the same respect. When Fidel Castro fell ill 18 months ago and ‘temporarily’ handed over power to his brother many of them hoped that changes would come to ease the crippling poverty and day-to-day struggle that they face. The Cubans I have spoken to since say “nothing has changed”. Now that Fidel’s long reign has come to an end and Raul has taken the reigns there is little prospect of any dramatic changes. And no doubt his older brother will still be lurking in the background. It’ll probably have to wait until Raul steps down before there is any prospect of life improving significantly for most Cubans.
The skaters are frustrated by the lack of access to equipment and facilities. There are no skate shops in Cuba whatsoever; the only equipment that arrives is from friends and family from other countries bringing it in. And if family and friends bring them decks, wheels etc then they miss out on the clothes, mobile phones (Cubans cannot buy mobile phones, the only way they can have one is if somebody from outside Cuba brings one in and then pays the bill too), MP3 players or cash that they could bring. They only facilities that Cubans have they have made themselves. They have a skatepark that is actually an old, drained, concrete ornamental pond in a public park with ramps and rails cobbled together with whatever they can find. There other “park” is just an area at the corner of 2 streets in town where they stash some flat bars behind a wall and put them down steps to augment the ledges and steps.
But Havana is teaming with street spots and most are a non-bust – And for us rich tourist types a paltry bribe will often be enough for a security guard to turn a blind eye. Marble is everywhere. No spot is going to get crowded because there aren’t enough skaters. Ledges, steps, manual pads, gaps, hubbas are all plentiful, handrails are rare but there are a couple if you know where to look. There are also some nice ditch-type spots. The weather is warm all year but gets a bit too hot and humid in summer and there is the hurricane season that runs from September to December.
Cubans do try and avoid breaking decks so they don’t often go for big drops; they try and preserve their wheels so they don’t slide much. They are often even short on candles to wax ledges. If they break a kingpin they have to get a metal worker to manufacture them a new one at great expense – they can’t even buy a bolt. No equipment gets thrown away just passed down to somebody else. They will use 2 broken decks to make one (very heavy!) one. They ride bearings that you can see through (no shields) and that sound like they have square balls in them. Grip tape is ripped, nose and tails are half the length they should be and decks are soggy. Their shoes are often missing big chunks of sole and upper. But they skate well – real fucking well. They have managed to get copies of skate videos and they know all the moves.
The weird thing to us, blinkered capitalist-based skaters, is that the skateboarders hang out with rollerbladers and BMXers, and often people do more than one. I was laughing at one skateboarder who I saw doing rollerblading and he asked me why I was taking the piss – he saw nothing wrong with it. If you break a deck then you might have to rollerblade or do nowt for months and months. And they are all after facilities together and being so few in numbers they are forced to try and organise together to achieve anything.
Che Alejandro Pando
Che is the godfather of the Cuban skate scene. He worries about everything to do with improving the skate scene, the tattoo scene, the music scene – just as well because nobody else seems to. He is almost 10 years older than any of the other skaters – all the ones that skated when he was young have long since quit. He is a diamond geezer, a good gadgie, sound as a pound.
Che’s dad was a dedicated member of the Communist Party and as such he chose his newborn son’s first and middle names from the war names of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro – hence Che Alejandro. Sallie and myself have been welcomed with open arms by all the skaters – and we in turn take them as much skate equipment as we can carry – but Che especially is unbelievably hospitable. Every time we say we are looking to make another visit he offers us the use of his house – saying he will move out for the duration of our stay – to save us on hotels and to encourage us to make the trip. We never take him up on his offers because it would force him to stay at his girlfriend’s mum’s flat in a single bed in a grotty soviet high-rise, miles out of the city centre.
His little flat is also his place of work – a little corner of his living room/kitchen. He is actually lucky for a Cuban in that he has a fairly nice place (but it is tiny), and he can make decent money from tattooing. But it is a precarious living – tattooing is frowned on by elements in the government. So newspapers carry (fabricated) reports of how people can die of blood poisoning from the ink and he is constantly fighting for his right to earn a living by tattooing.
Likewise he is always fighting for the skaters of Cuba. He is constantly trying to encourage foreign skaters to visit, having meetings with the government to get facilities and funding or – more accurately – the permission to get facilities and funding from willing donors. The red tape in Cuba is incredible – often because everybody is looking for his or her cut along the way. He told me that a good job in Cuba isn’t necessarily one that pays the best but the one that allows you to steal something you can trade or sell. You can’t even buy wood or metal unless you are from a government approved company or working on a government approved project, and it is the same with tools.
Che is almost killing himself trying to raise the profile of Cuban skating so that visitors will come and bring equipment and moral support. I would not be typing this now if it weren’t for him. He is a miracle worker because he does all this with no car, no money, no mobile phone, no clout – it is all his determination and his dreams. He dreams of a Cuba with the same people and passion but where he can freely earn a living and where he can go buy a new deck in a skateshop down the road. In fact he wants to run that skateshop/tattoo parlour/miniramp park.
But the constant struggle is finally getting to him. Last time I spoke to him he said, “I’m getting tired man. I am tired of fighting for my tattooing, for my skating, for food to eat, for everything.” His girlfriend has just been granted permission (no mean feat) to move to Spain where her father is working and living and Che – who once vowed to never leave his beloved Cuba – is considering trying to get a job offer from a tattooing shop in Spain, which would allow him to go with her. If you read this and you own a tattoo parlour in Spain get in touch and I will pass you some examples of his work (both myself and Sallie sport samples) including a framed picture in a 50’s style tattoo design he sent back for me to give Mischief skateshop for their support in supplying and persuading others to supply equipment for my trips out there.
If he does get out and go to Spain his struggle will be at an end but the Cubans will miss him greatly. He is the kingpin that Cuban skating turns on. I always take him the equipment and he knows what to do with it – he knows who needs a deck, and who needs shoes.
In March this year I received my usual e-mail from Che via some random Cuban friend of his, telling me of a competition they were holding in August and asking if I would help to support it with prizes and mine and Sallies’ presence.
I was worried – first August is an expensive time to get flights to Cuba from the UK, and second because it would be ferociously hot and humid. But after discussing it with Sal, we decided “what the hell”. So I put out an appeal on the Sidewalk forum explaining the Cuban skaters’ situation and asking for donations of equipment. I had an absolutely, unbelievably, amazing response – a massive thank you to Mischief, Shiner, BEAR 02, Floor Odoriser, Anonymity, Silent Will, Andy Harker, Crazy Phil, Lawrencium, Ciaran, yellowmedia etc for all your donations
The final tally of stuff I took was:
12 brand-spanking new decks and enough grip tape for all of them
5 second-hand decks
4 new sets of wheels
5 second-hand sets of wheels
3 new sets of bearings
2 brand-new pairs of shoes
1 second hand pair of shoes
About 8 DVD’s
A ton of stickers and a couple of mags
-And for Che: ink, coloured pencils and some tattoo magazines
It weighed in at almost 40 kg loaded into 2 army “sausage “ bags. Luckily Sallie’s luggage allowance allowed me to take some clothes too!
So we arrived in Cuba slightly trepidatious at how local customs would take to all the stuff I was bringing in. Not a worry – we breezed through. The luggage trolley almost collapsed under the weight and we almost collapsed with the mid-summer heat outside but soon we were safely in our air-conditioned hotel room and I spread the spoils on the bed for a picture before it was all scattered across Havana. It was an impressive display.
We had one day to get used to the heat and time zone before the comp. We met up with Che and took all the stuff. He freaked – totally freaked. He told us that if it weren’t for us there would be no prizes for the comp. They had been promised lots of sponsorship by lots of people but we were the only ones to come through. Red Bull had provided money for a PA and trophies and provided cans of Red Bull, but no prizes. The European Union had promised lots but only come through with – and this is funny – stickers, T-shirts with the EU flag on them and strings of flags of the member countries of the EU for decoration. Funnily enough the flags all got nicked! People will steal anything in Cuba.
Che also said that people were only expecting us to bring about 3 decks and maybe a set of wheels – just enough to give prizes to the top 3 skaters. This haul meant that the top 10 would all get a brand-spanking new deck plus wheels or bearings and stickers; and they would also raffle off some more decks so that even the not-so-good skaters would have the chance of a prize.
The competition was going to be skateboarding, BMX and rollerblading, spread over 2 days with qualifying on the first day and a 10 man final on the second. It was being held in the skatepark-in-a-pond that had the advantage of plenty of room and shade for spectators around the edges.
Before the trip I had been skating every day wearing sweatshirts in the hope I would get accustomed to the heat we were going to encounter. Not a chance. And the competition was taking place in the peak heat hours of the day. So I was mightily relieved to have the honour of being a judge along with Che and could shelter under the Red Bull judging tent while the contestants skated their hearts out – thinking that they had to make the top 3 to win anything – in the punishing heat of the concrete pit.
There were just over 20 entrants and hundreds and hundreds of spectators – most of whom were sharing bottles of rum no matter how young – you can get a decent bottle of rum in Cuba for about £1. The cops were there to keep an eye on things but this didn’t involve doing anything about pissed ten year-olds but did seem to involve beeping their car horn at any nice girls that walked past. There was a PA blasting rock music (Che told me that this was a rare treat in Cuba and was probably more responsible for the crowd size than the “extreme sports”) was at hand, a van selling cold drinks and another selling coconuts with rum in them. It was fantastic. I couldn’t move 10 yards without some skater or another offering me a swig of rum.
The pressure was really on the skaters, and some who were bona-fide rippers fell to pieces from nerves when their run came. What they were competing for was brought home to me when I realised that both Che and I had leant our boards to skaters who didn’t currently have a setup so they could compete in the hope of winning one.
The highlight of the first day was a little, black kid about 12 years-old called Jorge (pronounced hor-hay), who Che told me came from an extremely poor family blasted around the course and landed almost everything on a board I would have struggled to kick turn on, cheered on by his extremely proud mum. He qualified in fourth place against some extremely good skaters. Fantastic.
The next day the organisers had trumped themselves by lining up the even rarer public spectacle of a live band to perform after the comp. The crowd was even bigger and the heat just as intense. The 1st place qualifier from the first day, Fernando, broke his deck in practice and was almost inconsolable. He borrowed another setup but he lost the precious first place finish and he was more than aware of the fact.
Before the results were announced they announced me as the official sponsor of the event, I met a government official who thanked me personally for my support. I then had to hand out prizes including an Olympic-style podium for the top three. It was insane and it was great.
Fernando still pulled in fourth place despite his earlier setback. Little Jorge managed to snag second place! He got a deck and wheels and bearings and stickers and he went absolutely mental. Absolutely nuts. He’ll still be grinning now. And he is going to be sooo good when he gets older. First place went to Humberto, a veteran skater and surfer who refused to bail and pulled tricks on every obstacle in the park – rickety or not.
It was funny seeing people who came 10th doing a double take when they were given a deck. And the ones who won the raffle decks went as mental as little Jorge. It made the whole trip worthwhile. That equipment donated by Sidewalk forum-types made such an impact – if only everybody who donated could have been there. Get your flights booked, I say.
The next week-and-a-half Sal and me chilled in the afterglow of that event – and in the cool swimming pool at our hotel. In fact therein lies another touching story. Che’s girlfriend Teresa hardly ever gets a chance to swim. There are few public swimming pools and they are very expensive or hard to get to. So when Che found out we had a pool at out hotel he asked if I could find out if Cubans were allowed there. I freaked at the thought that Cubans might not even be allowed near the pool. In fact it is completely illegal for Cubans to go to a hotel room, they can’t stray farther than the reception and even then only if a hotel guest has invited them. Anyway eventually we found out that Cubans can use the pool for a fee of $18 – although they are allowed $18 credit at the bar/snackbar thingmie jig. Now that is about a month’s wages to most Cubans and for Teresa – who works at the zoo – it is about 2 or 3 months wages. It was Che’s turn to freak when he heard the price. But in the end Sal and I said we would pay half and eat and drink half the tab and he went for it. Now this was just a typical hotel pool – nothing fancy but Che said it was probably the nicest place he had ever been and Teresa – normally a bundle of mad energy – was as quiet as a mouse. And she loved her first ever hamburger too. How much do we take for granted? One weird part of that visit was that none of the staff called Che “Che”, instead they used his 2nd name “Alejandro”. He later explained it was because they didn’t think that a tattooed, pierced man deserved the name of the famous revolutionary. Little did they know he deserved it more than anybody I know.
A Potted History of Cuba
Most people have heard of Che Guevara, slightly fewer have heard of Fidel Castro, but in case you aren’t aware of what has happened in Cuba in the last century and how it has come to symbolize rebellion I will now present you with my own personal potted history of Cuba to give you a rough idea.
Cuba is the largest island (by far) in the Caribbean, and lies just 50 miles off the coast of the USA. Because of its location and its abundance of sugar cane it has long been an important trading location and so has been fought over by many nationalities for the last couple of hundred years.
In 1934 Fulgencio Batista took over the Cuban government in the “revolt of the sergeants” and for the next 25 years ruled Cuba with an iron fist and the help of American organised crime and the blessing of the US government. Many Cubans lived in abject poverty with little healthcare or education. In 1952 Batista who was being touted as a certainty to lose the elections staged a bloodless coup d’état to secure his position. This incensed many.
On July 26th 1953 Fidel Castro and brother Raul, along with 100 other rebels, stormed the Moncada army barracks. The attack was a failure and all the rebels that were not shot were caught, tried and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
The Castro brothers and the rest of the Moncada prisoners were pardoned in 1955 after a public campaign, and went to Mexico, where they were joined by Ernesto Che Guevara an Argentinean Marxist medical student who was desperate to fight for the rights of the downtrodden.
In 1956 these rebels returned on the yacht – a creaky leisure boat they had managed to acquire. After years of raids from their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains and the support of many Cuban peasants on January 1st 1959 Batista fled Cuba, and Fidel Castro declared victory.
As the months pass and the US becomes more hostile, there are many assassination attempts on Castro and failed invasion attempts. Cuba forms and alliance with the Soviet Union and in 1961 Fidel declares Cuba to be socialist. Some say this was due to the influence of Che Guevara.
The US commenced an economic embargo in 1960 and strengthened it in 1961, and 62.
In 1962 a US spy plane spots Soviet missiles based in Cuba capable of attacking the US. This starts the Cuban missile crisis that lasts for less than 2 weeks when the Soviets withdraw the missiles.
The story goes that Kennedy was ready to drop the economic embargo on Cuba in 1963 because he feared the increasing influence from the Soviet Union. Bang, bang, bang! No more Kennedy. The embargo lasts until this day.
Cuba was helped for many years by the USSR, exchanging Soviet oil for Cuban sugar. This all ended in 1991 and there followed what was known as the “Special Period” – a time of punishing hardship in Cuba with major shortages of food and fuel. Cubans had to resort to extremes to survive – during this period almost all the cats in Havana disappeared; people were catching and eating them.
As a bit of a lefty myself I naively thought that Cuba would be some sort of leftist utopia, where everybody was equal, everybody was happy. Unfortunately life is not like that.. Cuba is almost shockingly poor, the housing is crumbling, water supplies are often tankers in the street, and electricity is unreliable. And though the people seem happy and the healthcare and education are excellent, not everybody is equal. There is still racism in Cuba, there is still sexism in Cuba, and there is a lot of censorship in Cuba.
A funny/ridiculous example is the US embassy in Havana started displaying a moving LED display in the 4th floor window saying how great the US was and how bad the Cuban government was. The Cubans’ answer to this was to build a war memorial right outside the embassy with about 50 huge flagpoles and 50 gigantic flags flapping away in front of the said window. Job done. Oh and if you try to get near the embassy some Cuban soldiers will shoo you over to the other side of the road just to make sure you don’t read the evil words.
Fidel has clamped down on many of the things that make life bearable: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. In actual fact make that just drugs and rock’n’roll – sex tourism is rife in Cuba. Constantly you see fat, ugly 60-something Europeans with 17 year-old gorgeous Cuban girls (and sometimes boys), and they seem proud. Sad fuckers.
The greatest thing about Cuba is the people. They are friendly, they are a gorgeous mix of races and influences, salsa music is everywhere and infectious, violent crime is rare, and they have that Caribbean laid-back attitude. And they love their rum.
The politics tend to get in the way.
I learned about the good and the bad of Cuba through hanging out with the Cuban skaters. You could go a hundred times as a tourist and not really discover the reality. Go once as a skater and you’re sorted.