The anticipation of a pilgrimage began to consume me: Cuba, the last forbidden land in the Americas, had been on my radar for as long as I can remember. My thirteen-year old bedroom was laden with Che Guevara posters and books given by Dad and Godfather, from Mexico and Argentina respectively. Che’s famous quote, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre”, forever plastered in iron next to his iconic portrait in Havana’s Revolution Square, has been a driving force in my work ethic for the last ten years. This interest has also led me to deconstruct and critically evaluate the romanticism and mystique around Che, the Revolution, and Cuba. As an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I minored in Latin American studies and took several classes on Cuban history and modern day politics. The last missing piece was actually visiting the island I have spent countless hours thinking about.
Fast forwarding to spring 2014, with one semester of graduate school in the books I found myself with the perfect opportunity to legally visit the island. Every year the Monterey Institute of International Studies puts together a student delegation to spend 10 days in Cuba mainly consisting of touring government ministries, participating in exchanges with other Cuban university students, and visiting historical sites. Although the itinerary was booked pretty much down to the minute, I was determined to squeeze in my two side projects and passions: delivering surf gear to the Royal 70 Havana Surf Club, and meeting with Jorge Angulo from the University of Havana’s Marine Science Institute. For three months prior to departure, I sent emails to every person I could find who had worked on marine conservation issues in Cuba, or who supports surfing on the island, to be able to make these goals a reality.
Whenever I travel, one of the main vehicles I use for connecting to locals and fellow salty brothers is through surfing. A few years back I stumbled upon a New York Times’ article about the underground surf scene in Cuba and was fascinated. Surfers in Cuba risk incarceration every time they paddle out, because until only a few years ago, it was completely illegal to go further than 50 yards offshore. The level of dedication and passion to keep surfing under these political conditions and legal implications deserves the utmost respect from the surfing community. In the land of abundance and entitlement here in California, many kids have up to 30 surfboards sitting in their garages collecting dust, while Cuban surfers can’t even buy a bar of wax. In Cuba, surfers rely 100% on the donations of surfers from outside Cuba to physically deliver supplies. If donations fail to arrive, they are left to improvise… or as Cubans say, “Hay que inventar!” This is exactly what Cuba’s first surfboard shaper, Eduardo Valdes, and other Cuban surfers have been doing since the inception of surfing on the island in the early 90’s. The first boards that Eduardo began shaping were made of old planks of wood and ironing boards, using foam from old refrigerators and boat resin to shape “Una tabla Cubana”. To date there have been generous acts from surfers hailing anywhere from Japan to Italy in order to support surfing in Cuba. And now, it was my turn. Fortunately, Royal 70 Havana has a website and contact information for anyone interested in surfing and looking to help out. Royal 70 is the latest project of Eduardo Valdes and Australian surfer Blair Cording. I sent a round of “shot in the dark” emails and to my delight both Blair and Eduardo were stoked to hear about another brother willing to help out. They sent me a list of the most critical items needed, including resin, fiberglass, leashes, wax, and clothing.
Back home in Monterey, California, I rallied my friends and organized a benefit event for Royal 70, complete with a screening of “Surfing With the Enemy”, the 2011 documentary dedicated to surfing in Cuba, the first of its kind. The stars of the movie are Eduardo and his group of dedicated and passionate friends, who seek refuge amongst each other riding waves brought in by cold fronts across the Gulf of Mexico from December to March. For the surfers of Cuba, it is an escape from a grim economic reality that has led to the exodus of millions of Cubans since the 1990s. Most of them lack legitimate means to immigrate to the U.S., but dream of surfing in Hawaii, Costa Rica, and California, just as I have had the privilege to do. The struggle to get surfing recognized as an official sport and receive support from the government has been an ongoing battle, often full of empty promises, but their struggle to keep riding waves continues, and until then (as many of their tattoos read) they will “never stop surfing”.
Upon arrival in Cuba, the other important side activity I had planned, for Monday morning at 9:00am was an interview with Jorge Angulo at the University of Havana’s Marine Science Institute in Miramar. Jorge is an exemplary figure of a Cuban working toward a more just country. El Centro de Investigaciones Marinas (Marine Science Institute), or CIM, of the University of Havana is run like a family, and Jorge does everything in his power to ensure the well being of his staff. Among the many topics that Jorge and I discussed, one of the most interesting was how Cuba is going to deal with the economic pressures to develop its coastline in order to attract more international tourism. Over the past 10 years, Cuba’s economy has become increasingly reliant on tourism to recover from the financial crisis of the special period of the 1990s. In environmental terms, the lack of carte blanche foreign investment and unregulated coastal development has led to unrivaled pristine marine and terrestrial ecosystems, with Cuba often referred to as the “crown jewel of the Caribbean”. The greatest threat to Cuba’s environment outside of Havana is the potential for rapid coastal development in order to increase economic activity. Fortunately, people such as Jorge Angulo and his staff at CIM are tirelessly working with international organizations such as CMRC to conserve Cuba’s precious natural wonders. Although spending time in Havana is an integral part of any trip to Cuba, it is important to get out and see the country and its coastal and marine resources for all their beauty.