More than a month before Secretary of State John Kerry presided over a flag-raising ceremony in Havana, two men carrying U.S. and Cuban flags rapidly skated down the Malecon, followed by more than 100 other skateboarders.
Rene Lecour, 47, of Kendall, organized Havana skaters on June 21 to celebrate International Go Skateboarding Day. At the time, he told his wife he feared being arrested, but that didn’t happen.
The 11-mile Cuban skateboard tour, which at one point cut through a parade of the Havana Biennial Art Fair, was organized by Lecour and the movement he founded, Amigo Skate Cuba.
“To me, what we do is more rewarding than any kind of trouble we can get into. I don’t see that I’m doing anything wrong. To me, I’m like the Red Cross of skateboarding,” Lecour told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “If Mother Theresa and Joey Ramone were to have a love child, it would be have been Amigo Skate Cuba.”
Lecour moved from Atlanta to Miami-Dade County two weeks before Hurricane Andrew struck in August 1992. He hitchhiked to South Beach to become a DJ. Throughout his 20s, he would spin records on the beach, around the U.S and Puerto Rico until 2002.
Lecour was a warehouse manager in Coral Terrace when he unexpectedly lost his job in 2003. At that time, he and his two sons; Cheyenne, then 5, and Kaya, then 9, would regularly skate at Peacock Park in Coconut Grove on Saturdays and Sundays.
“That was way over a 100 bucks a week,” he said, tallying up parking, lunch and the then-$10 park fee per person.
To save money, he worked out a deal with the park’s managers in which he would maintain the Peacock skate park so his sons could skate. “I did that for about a month,” he said.
By the end of the summer, his life had changed: He had been hired to become the skate park’s general manager and moved into a historic home on Grand Avenue.
The skate park’s management waived the fee for many of the Grove’s impoverished youth at the summer program Lecour supervised. “These kids would come over without eating breakfast, none of them had skateboards,” he said.
Slowly, he began collecting worn and used skateboards and began giving them to the same Grove teens who skated for free. He also fed and sheltered some of the neighborhood boys who skated at the park during the day.
“Amigo Skate Cuba was my house at that point,” he said.
In 2010, son Kaya showed him a YouTube video, The Cuban Skateboard Crisis, detailing the difficulties the islands skaters go through trying to obtain skate equipment.
The video inspired him to do as he did in the Grove — collect skateboards for those who needed them.
Since then he’s flown to Havana at least once a year, joined by several international skateboarders all hauling large duffel bags with new and used donated skateboards.
Amigo Skate’s efforts did not go unnoticed. “The Cuban government somehow got an email to us letting us know they knew who we were and what we were doing. At first, I was a little scared,” Leour said.
The emails, sent in February, thanked Lecour for his work and asked to collaborate with him on future skateboarding projects.
“I’m actually surprised they didn’t do it earlier,” said Sebastian Arcos, associate director for the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who commends Lecour’s grassroots effort, but sees Havana’s contact with him as a means to maintain control and legitimacy. “The essence of any totalitarian state is control, the only provider of anything is the state,” he said.
Arcos said the Cuban government is likely more weary of Lecour because he is a Cuban American. “They have an established propaganda that says Cuban Americans are bad. So a Cuban American coming in and giving something to the average Cuban breaks that propaganda.”
This month, Lecour will fly to Havana to deliver plans for a skatepark to be built near the Malecon, where he and the others skated in June.
“We’ve had about three meetings with them already. Everything is done more on a handshake than anything else. We’ve gotten a lot further than anticipated,” Lecour said.
If the Cuban government signs off on the designs, Lecour said, they can immediately start looking for funding, a process that, from his experience in the U.S, can be a lengthy one.
“We’re not the kind of guys that can just sit still,” said Lecour, who this month — without government permission — will make several plazas in Havana’s poorer neighborhoods more skateboard friendly.
“Go in, do it fast, drop off equipment with the kids, throw a little party there, and just be gone and let that little thing just turn into its own little epicenter of skateboarding in that neighborhood,” he said.