Private Project

Havana Libre

After years of surfing being illegal, a diehard group of Cuban surfers rises up against their government to legitimize their biggest passion. Havana Libre chronicles their fight in the face of political oppression, confronting borders and outdated ideologies along the way.

Just five years ago, if you flew above the 3,500 miles of pristine coastline that surrounds Cuba, you likely would not have seen a single surfer in the water. Here, less than 100 miles south of the United States, surfing was outlawed—a product of highly policed borders and pervasive skepticism of Western culture. If in the off chance you did happen to see someone out amongst the waves, it was likely Frank Gonzales Guerra.

A spirited 29-year-old with chin-length wavy hair, Frank started “surfing” in his early teens on a scrap of plywood roofing he stole off a dilapidated building near his home. Because prefabricated boards and other proper surf materials are impossible to find in Cuba, Frank taught himself how to craft his own out of discarded refrigerator doors and other found materials. He developed his surf technique watching smuggled videos and from photos in magazine clippings.

Over time, Frank and his close friends fostered an underground community around surfing. With co-lead Yaya Guerrero, an inspiring, determined woman who confronted machismo culture to become respected in the community, Frank and the Cuban surfers face off against their government to legitimize their sport. Over three years of filming, we watch them experience life changing opportunities and triumphs and persevere through heartbreaking setbacks while they grow from a community into a movement, from surfers into leaders.

Along this journey Frank and Yaya, a duo empowered by the spirit of change, find themselves continually in the middle of a larger ongoing conflict between political adversaries, Cuba and the United States. To this end, Havana Libre uses surfing as a tool to help understand this far more complex relationship and share a very human story of resilience, family, ingenuity, and diehard passion that is lost in the headlines. Perhaps the most direct, within months of our arrival in Cuba, and with our cameras rolling, President Obama became the first American president to step foot in Cuba in 88 years, declaring, “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”

We followed Frank and Yaya as hope began to creep through the cracks in their cynicism, as they witnessed first-hand the changes in their country that brought new opportunities for cultural dialogue between Cuba and the US. Yaya spotted an opportunity for surfing to find a sympathetic ear with the government with the addition of the sport in the upcoming 2020 Olympics. Frank meanwhile, anticipating the birth of his first child, a girl named Paola, rises to the task of training to not only support his family, but to hopefully represent his country on a world stage.

With ambition and pride, Frank and Yaya embark on a journey across the island to help prove to the government that a surf population not only exists, but is thriving and integral to smaller communities around Cuba. While recognition in Cuba remained slow, their story made waves globally. A petition by the filmmakers at the surfers’ request went viral; it was viewed more than a million times and garnered support from surfers across the world, representing 85 countries. The petition also caught the attention of the Smithsonian museum, which helped coordinate a cultural exchange trip for Frank and Yaya to Southern California and Hawaii.

A year passed and surfing became an official Olympic sport, Fidel Castro died, and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. President Trump’s inauguration heralded the reinstatement of almost every anti-Cuban policy, within a week reversing much of the progress of the Obama years. While Yaya channeled her disappointment into action, teaching children to surf, organizing beach cleanups, and lobbying the government to recognize the sport, Frank became despondent, feeling powerless as his dreams for his daughters Paola’s future were seemingly consumed by the political maelstrom. Over late nights in his shed building a surfboard for his Paola, he reflects on the bleak future of the country and his dreams of escape. Empowered by Yaya’s determination though, and bolstered by his family and the surf community, Frank’s fight was reinvigorated. His commitment paid off as he eventually receives an invitation to surf in an Olympic-qualifying competition in Peru, the first time any Cuban surfer would compete abroad.

Despite the government's efforts to bar his participation in the competition, Frank decides to leave the country anyway, even with the possibility that he may not be allowed to return. This brave and somewhat reckless action is one of the more bittersweet moments in the film: though he yearns to be part of a true “Team Cuba,” Frank is forced to reckon with the fact that, without the support of his government, he may never be able to share the experience with his countrymen and those he loves, including Paola. Though he ultimately fails to qualify, he is able to return to Cuba as a hero within the surf community and finds new purpose in inspiring the next generation of Cuban youth surfers. Both him and Yaya decided to organize the first youth surfing competition on the island inviting local kids to build plywood surfboards and educating them on what may someday be possible.

Whether or not the sport’s legalization happens in their lifetimes, or whether tensions with the United States ease, Frank, Yaya and the rest of Cuba’s surfers continue to live by the credo they all wear immortalized in tattoo on their skin: “Never Stop Surfing.” Havana Libre is their story of oppression and empowerment.

  • Corey McLean
  • Corey McLean
  • Tyler Dunham
  • Tyler Dunham
  • Nicholas Weissman
    For Ahkeem, The Minuteman
  • Frank Gonzales Guerra
    Key Cast
  • Yaya Guerrero
    Key Cast
  • Seth Brown
    Director of Photography
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Cultural, Sport
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 25 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    October 7, 2019
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital 4k
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
    United States
    February 19, 2021
    Virtual Premiere
    Feature Competition
Distribution Information
  • 1091
Director Biography - Corey McLean

Corey McLean is a documentary director, musician, and artist currently based out of Los Angeles. His pathway to becoming a filmmaker has been an unexpected journey dictated by story rather than by design. Growing up on the coast of Maine, McLean, Dunham, and Brown all started pointing cameras at the age of 9, making films about skiing and skateboarding to avoid boredom in the woods. Now, over two decades later, the lifelong friends are still chasing more meaningful stories around the world. Having shot amidst the Ebola crisis in Liberia to the streets of Argentina, to the shores of Cuba, Mclean has developed a knack for finding the endearing qualities of the human spirit in the face of hardship. He has had short form work featured at Mountain Film Festival, Camden International Film Festival, and by the WSL, as well as writing in Good Magazine, The Inertia, The Adventure Journal, and The Surfer’s Journal. Havana Libré is his first feature film.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

When we took our first production trip to Cuba, in the spring of 2016, we embedded ourselves for three months with Frank and Yaya to shoot a short film about surfboard shaping. We had read a New York Times article from 2013 that discussed the topic, and thought of it as a way to spend time in a country that we always wanted to explore. Those three months proved to be revolutionary, both for our characters and the country. The events that unfolded (Open borders, Obama’s visit, Rolling Stones concert, Frank’s daughter’s birth, Yaya’s transformation into a leader in the surf community), spoke to something far greater than surfboard shaping.

We realized quickly that through these characters, we were getting a unique impression of life in Cuba that was so hard to resonate with in newspaper headlines. It was also abundantly clear how American policies to embargo Cuba economically and prevent travel to the country hurt most Cubans. We realized surfing could be something of a guide to help viewers of all backgrounds understand this on a human level. With this in mind, we decided to pursue a feature and have continued following our characters through an increasingly complicated time within Cuba and between our countries. In an age of political turmoil and radical headlines, this human story is more important to share than ever.