Updated: November 4, 2009, 3:30 PM ET

Cuba Libre

Chris Nieratko and friends embark on a goodwill skateboarding trip to Cuba.

Nieratko By Chris Nieratko
ESPN
Archive

Tomas Crowder is an Argentinean filmmaker that garnered critical acclaim for "Surfing Favela," his 2005 documentary about impoverished Brazilian surfers. It is by a sheer stroke of luck that I met and befriended him. A mutual friend at Red Bull, Peter Jasienski, had been working with Crowder on sponsoring his upcoming documentary, "The Other Ché," about the Cuban skate scene and its unofficial leader, Ché Alejandro Pando Napoles.

a>

Inspired by this documentary about the difficulties confronted trying to skateboard in Cuba, I mentioned to Jasienski that I wanted to go there with some industry heads (The Skatepark of Tampa guys, Tod Swank, Scuba Steve, Zered Bassett, Ron Deily, Rick McCrank, Mike Anderson, Quim Cardona, Bryce Kanights and various wives and girlfriends). Watching the footage, we saw just how difficult it was to get any products into Cuba, let alone skate stuff. In the video, a kid breaks his board and has to nail and glue it back together using a 2-by-4 to hold the pieces in place. The effect of the U.S. embargo on Cuba is sad, most notably its effect on the children of the country. I am not in favor of children suffering for the sins of their fathers. We wanted to bring new decks to the kids.

Jasienski told me about Crowder, that he and I would be in Los Angeles in January at the same time and that we should meet. The rest, as they say, is history. On April 21, we boarded a plane to Havana, Cuba, via Panama.

The months leading up to our departure were stressful. My wife, who was coming along on the trip, was four months pregnant. Our whole crew was completely dependant on Crowder for our safety and security, and none of us had any idea what we were getting into. Prior to meeting Crowder, we—the naïve Americans—thought we'd waltz into Cuba and hand out skateboards. We didn't know that without the right contacts and permits we would have been stopped at gunpoint and likely arrested.

Chris NieratkoRon Deily bluntslides an empty fountain somewhere in Havana, Cuba.  Launch Cuba Gallery »

Few of the basic freedoms we know in the U.S. exist in Cuba. You can be sent to jail if you don't have a job, most places have no toilet paper, many live in fear, most citizens are not allowed Internet and there's no fast food (and little beef for that matter). Needless to say, for parents, skateboards are low on the list of priorities. I saw kids tré flip stairs with no nose or tail on their boards. Their tails ended right past the back bolts, where a normal tail would start to kick up. It made me appreciate all that we have in the U.S., reminding me to never take it for granted again.

I need to thank Red Bull, éS, Vans, the Skatepark of Tampa, Tum Yeto, The Skateboard Mag and all the brands that donated product for the kids (Girl, Bones, Black Box, Deluxe, Hubba, Blind, Mob Grip, Acapulco Gold, Autobahn, Powell, Flip, 5Boro, Zoo York, Organika, Dakine and all the kids at SPoT and NJ Skateshop that donated their old boards to the cause.)

But it was Crowder at Wu Wei Films who is truly responsible for making the trip a success. Without him we'd have been flying completely blind, and probably would have ended up in jail. For all his help, I am eternally grateful. Here are a few words with "The Tomas." Look for his film soon.

Nieratko: Tell me about the documentary you are working on.
Crowder: It basically documents what has happened and, hopefully, what will happen in the Cuban skate scene. Right now, the main guy is Ché Alejandro Pando Napoles. Ché is an icon here. He's the unwitting leader of the skate community. He is the first Cuban tattoo artist/skater/surfer. He's a very Cuban guy who loves his country. He had the opportunity to leave Cuba, but he chose to come back. He's always helping kids. He's always enduring, keeping his passion alive. He's never changed his lifestyle. I thought Ché could use help to further their revolution, and that's where I came in. I'm from Argentina; Ché Guevara is from Argentina. I was always interested in knowing about what went on in Cuba. Then, Red Bull hired me and gave me the opportunity to go. I found Ché skating. It was time to give something back. I convinced Red Bull and the Cuban Sports Ministry to try to help the kids.

The documentary will be called "The Other Ché." The 44-minute edit will, hopefully, be released at the end of July. Then, I want to do an extended hour and 20 minute version for December of 2009.

Nieratko: How did it all come together for our trip?
Crowder: I was promoting this script. I'm also a big fan of Vice magazine. We don't have it in Argentina, but when I'm traveling I always try to get ahold of it, and I kept reading your column. I heard from Peter Jasienski that you were willing to be involved in this project and I thought, 'Why not get together to see if we can do something?' I was happy that people wanted to help carry the torch because it's a big torch for one person to carry. We need all the media and athlete support as is possible. I was really happy to have you on board. That's how these trips happen: we were in contact, you were working to organize the skaters—it's not an easy task.

Nieratko: For sure. And you didn't tell the kids that we were coming until a couple days before. Why?
Crowder: Cubans in general, and the kids more specifically, have been promised a lot over time. There have been other American skaters that have come, but they didn't relate to the Cuban kids. The kids were really amped to have skaters visit—they sold boards and got cash any way they could, just to buy the American pros some beers to hang out, and those skaters never showed up. So I decided I would be a man of facts and not words. Words are easy to say. We live in a different environment. When you come to Cuba, you realize you are in such a privileged position that these kids never see. I wanted to honor the trust these kids were giving to me. They're good kids and they don't have most of the things we have in our more developed world. So I thought the best thing to do would be to surprise them. People were crying when you guys and were giving out boards.

Chris NieratkoMike Anderson puts together some completes for the Cuban skaters.  Launch Cuba Gallery »

Nieratko: Were you surprised that it all came together?
Crowder: No. I know when you're dedicated and doing something good you shouldn't be afraid of anything. In the end, people will realize that. If you conquer your fear, you will be capable of enduring big things. Fidel Castro, in one of his speeches said, "Revolution is to change what needs to change." Ché Guevara already came here and helped the kids, so maybe they will trust that I'm only here to help this wonderful island that I love. I'm happy you guys didn't freak out. I'm happy the government understood what this was all about. I look forward to letting the States and Cuba know that, in the end, we are all the same. We want to skate. We want to have fun. We want to enjoy and practice our sport and live our lives. After 50 years, I think it's time.

Nieratko: Would you say that our little trip was a success?
Crowder: By all means. I'm actually really happy for everyone. For you guys. For the documentary. For the skaters. But most of all, for the Cuban skaters. They've regained the trust that was there. They look up to you guys. The rest of the world looks up to America. If you're a skater, you look to the States. Everything is in the States: the brands, the TV, the recognition, the pro athletes. So you guys did a good job coming here relating to Cuban people as Cubans.

Nieratko: The demo got a little bit hectic. Back home we're used to those kind of things.
Crowder: Actually, there was a minister from Internal Affairs there. I don't know if you realized, but he was dressed in all green and was always nearby—checking, checking, checking. I approached him and asked him what his overall impression was, and I made some comments about my previous work with all the ministers. I like to look in the eyes of those people. I think they can understand what you are up to that way. I sensed that he got out of his mental thing that we were doing anything bad, and then he left. It was really good in the end. But of course, there were fears from some people because you don't have the permits. But I talk to government people all the time. They know who I am. They know where they can reach me. And in the end, we're doing sports, not getting drunk in a plaza.

Chris NieratkoZered Basset reels in a backside flip.  Launch Cuba Gallery »

Nieratko: You had the chance to talk to some kids after they received free product. Because of the language barrier it's tough to have a conversation and get a full reaction. What were they saying?
Crowder: They were happier than I have ever seen. It's difficult for them to get the means to practice a sport. Other kids were saying that skating helped them big-time, and now they have a new board so they can keep growing and improving. They were like, 'I can't believe I got a board from Rick McCrank. I can't believe that I can keep practicing.' A good sense of resolution and happiness.

Nieratko: That's great. Anything else?
Crowder: I would like to add a little bit about "The Other Ché." We already talked about Ché Pando as the leader of the new generation. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, but there is an ongoing revolution in Cuba and the leader is another guy also called Ché; it's the main motivation of my documentary. Fifty years after the revolution, there is another Ché leading a revolution where arms have changed to skateboards.

MORE ACTION SPORTS HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM