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American brings skateboarding diplomacy to Cuba

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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Skateboarding passion bridges cultures
  • Rene Lecour is a first-generation Cuban-American and skateboard shop owner
  • He wanted to help Cuban skaters get better equipment
  • He reached out to young skateboarders, who donated dozens of old boards
  • He brought them to Cuba on a recent trip with his family

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Rene Lecour's plan started out simple: Take his son on a skateboarding trip to someplace "epic."

While he and his son, Kaya, were searching the internet, they saw videos of Cuba's skateboarders making do with beaten-up and jerry-rigged boards.

Economic shortages and the U.S. embargo make it difficult to get most sporting equipment there. For skateboarders, it was nearly impossible.

"We both said right away, 'We are going there,' " Lecour recalled.

Lecour owns a chain of skateboard shops in South Florida and thought his contacts in the skating community would make it easy for him to bring boards to Cuba.

He was wrong.

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"I e-mailed every single skateboard company I know," Lecour said. "The only two responses I got were unfortunately one person who said we shouldn't be allowed to go because of the embargo. Another 'genius' said we shouldn't come because all the skaters are all communist."

As a first-generation Cuban-American, Lecour had already been dreaming of visiting the island where his parents where born. The recent relaxing of travel restrictions under the Obama administration makes visiting easier for Cuban-Americans and for people on cultural exchange trips.

But he didn't want to go empty-handed.

A former DJ whose arms are crisscrossed with tattoos, Lecour put out the word that any board, no matter how worn or weathered, would be welcomed by the Cubans.

Slowly, as he and his family got ready for the trip, skateboards began to trickle in.

"The response from the kids has been amazing," Lecour said. "It's easier for a 9-year-old kid who skates to understand the need than for a 30-year-old head of a skateboard company, who just doesn't get it."

A week before the flight to Cuba, he held a skateboard party for people wishing to donate. Heavy metal rock played at a skate park in Miami's Kendall neighborhood in the background as dozens of teenagers practiced their moves.

The boards continued to pile up in front of Lecour.

"This is really awesome," he said as the reality of the trip sank in. Cuban skaters like Che Alejandro Pando Napoles rely on generous foreigners like Lecour.

Pando said there are skate parks around the island but no skate shops. There is nowhere for skaters to buy their first boards or replace ones that break, he said.

"Sometimes, it holds back your progression," Pando said. "You see a set of stairs and you say, 'I am not going to do anything down there because I will break my board. I'd rather keep my board healthy than do that trick I really want do.' "

Pando lives for skating, a point he drives home by showing visitors his wedding video where, after the ceremony, he, his bride and wedding party roar away on skateboards.

It's easier for a 9-year-old kid who skates to understand the need [in Cuba] than for a 30-year-old head of a skateboard company, who just doesn't get it.
--Rene Lecour
  • Cuba
  • Skateboarding
  • South Florida

Before coming to Cuba, Lecour had been trying to get in touch with Pando, the closest thing to a leader in Havana's skate scene. Within an hour after landing, Lecour randomly bumped into Pando on the street in a kind of only-in-Havana coincidence.

The two skaters quickly made plans to skate together and distribute the duffel bags full of boards and gear that Lecour brought with him.

Walking into the skateboard area at Havana's Parque Metropolitano, Lecour immediately saw several dozen skaters and realized that he hadn't brought enough equipment to go around. Pando told him not to worry and said they would hold a skate competition.

As the local skaters flew off ramps and attempted tricks, the Americans' eyes went wide. Lecour; his wife, Yirka; son, Kaya; and family friend Shane were stunned that the Cubans skated the way they did with the sorry gear they had.

"I don't how that guy uses such small wheels on that board," Lecour whispered.

Soon, the contest was over. While most of the skaters didn't win boards, they seemed happy with the hats, T-shirts or sunglasses they received.

The skaters who won boards wore ear-to-ear grins.

Lecour says he doesn't want to be portrayed as "the gringo coming to the rescue."

"The Cuban skaters have been incredibly generous. They keep inviting us to meals and to get together," he said. "I am already thinking of my next trip and all the gear I am going to bring."