In Cuba, there is a small, tight-knit community of diehard local surfers who are determined to represent their country in the 2020 Olympics, despite a laundry list of obstacles working against them. The most significant of these obstacles? Surfing is technically illegal in their country.
Surfing has been unintentionally controversial with the Cuban government since it’s inception. When the Cold War came to an end in the early 90s, all economic support for Cuba from the Soviet Union evaporated. Still, on the dark side of the US embargo, this left the population starving and fearing for their future. A mass exodus began via all forms of watercraft – ranging from car tires to leaky tin rafts – prompting the Cuban government to effectively ban people from the coastline.
In this same time frame, several guys began developing their own strain of surfing while testing out homemade board designs. When the government saw young men paddling out into the water on foam boards, they assumed they were making a break for Florida. In a country that maintained a longstanding ban on rock n’ roll and dished out year-long prison sentences for eating beef, legalizing surfing was never a consideration. So, the constant threat of being detained or surfers having their coveted boards confiscated came to define the sport until the past couple of years.
Few know Cuba even has waves, including many Cubans themselves. The 100 or so Cubans who do surf, though, want to share the stoke by coercing their government to recognize a sport that’s technically been illegal for so long. Photo: Surf Libre
As the US/Cuba relationship has slowly thawed out politically, tensions have eased between surfers and law enforcement. Things are vastly improved compared to how they were 10 years ago, but the government’s failure to recognize surfing as a legitimate sport still presents a huge barrier for the sport’s evolution on the island.
For years, Cuban surfers have sought to organize an official club and association to collectively further the sport. They want to hold competitions at home as well as travel to competitions abroad if invited. They want to have the legal ability to advocate for ocean protection around their island and build a national team to develop future surfers. Until surfing is recognized as a sport, none of this can happen in Cuba.
With the acceptance of surfing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics comes a huge opportunity for Cuban surfers to make a legitimate case to their government. “Even if we don’t win, even if we don’t pass the first round,” says Frank Gonzalez, one of the pioneers of the Cuban surf scene, “if we’re there, I could breathe in peace, and say that we accomplished our goal.”
For Yaya Guerrero, one of the only female surfers in the country, legitimizing surf has become her primary focus. She’s made it a mission to assemble the full story of Cuban surf, along with evidence of the sport’s growth, into a presentation for the government.
The week following New Years 2016, myself and a small group of filmmakers packed our bags with ten weeks worth of clothing and headed to Cuba to work with Frank and Yaya on a film. As the country started to change more and more rapidly, legitimizing the sport seemed more and more in reach, and our conversations shifted toward how we could collaborate to make it succeed.
A year and a half later, Yaya and her group have asked for global support in the endeavor. They feel confident that, in light of all of the recent changes, if they can demonstrate that the world of surfing is behind them they will finally reach their goal.
If you think that it’s time for Cubans to be able to surf at home and with the rest of the world, please add your name to this petition and share with your friends – it could make a huge difference for their future in the sport! Let Cuba #surflibre.