Home / Business Focus
Sun, Jan 28, 2007 - Page 12 News List

The US embargo turned Cuba into a Harley museum

AFP , HAVANA

A group of Cuban Harley-lovers known as ''Harlistas'' wait for friends in a street of Havana on Jan. 20. A US embargo has forced Cubans to cannibalize parts from other vehicles and use ingenuity to keep the old models on the streets.

PHOTO: AFP

Unable to get original parts because of a 45-year-old US embargo, Cuban Harley-Davidson aficionados have resorted to ingenuity and Soviet truck parts to keep the decades-old US classics on Cuban roads.

Cuban fans, who are said to include Ernesto Guevara, a son of the famed revolutionary leader known as "Che," estimate there are about 100 Harleys left in the communist state, all of them predating 1960 and most still running.

"It's a struggle keeping them alive; you have to invent parts and invest a lot of time and money," said Sergio Morales, covered in grease but glowing with pride as he looked over a shiny 1949 Harley-Davidson Panhead restored to its former splendor.

Working in a Havana backyard that serves as a clandestine Harley garage, Morales and three other mechanics fine-tuned the 750 cc engine, which still had all its original parts.

As they worked, the bike's owner chatted with a fellow enthusiast who parked his 1947 military-green Knucklehead in the yard. A couple of kickstarts got the 1,000 cc engine running with the distinctive roar that is music to the ears of Harley-lovers, known in Cuba as Harlistas.

A couple of loud bangs sent flames through the exhaust and caused a neighbor's pigs to squeal loudly, a fitting cacophony for the legendary motorcycles often referred to as hogs, a nickname that is also an acronym for Harley Owners Group.

The Knucklehead sported a headlamp that once belonged to a Soviet truck, a 1950 Panhead parked nearby ran with a piston cannibalized from a Moto-Guzzi motorcycle and a custom three-wheeler was put together from a variety of parts, some homemade and others adapted.

Because the US embargo against the Caribbean island state makes it impossible to import spare parts, Harlistas have learned to make do with what is available, modifying parts from other bikes, cars, trucks and farm machinery and using plenty of imagination,

"Tourists who see our bikes, including members of Harley clubs abroad, sometimes tell us we are heroes," Morales said.

But for the local bikers, the true star was the late pioneer of Cuba's own Harley preservation methods, known as Pepe Milesimo -- which translates as "Minutia Pepe" -- for his mechanical precision. Every year, a handful of bikers ride to the Havana cemetery where he is buried to pay homage.

The enthusiasts try their best to preserve their rides' original engine and speak in awe of those Harleys that have kept running for more than five decades with little more than careful maintenance.

They also pointed out that their passion for the classics was not just a hobby in a country struggling with a severe shortage of public and private transportation.

"Cuba is a natural laboratory for Harley-Davidson, since the bikes are still running even though no spare parts can be had," said Morales, 56, who sported a grease-stained T-shirt proclaiming, in English: "Gentlemen, start your engines."

Harlistas tend to be well-mannered middle-aged men with little in common with the bad-boy image of bikers elsewhere, but said they do face some prejudice.

"Many people believe the US-made bike is a symbol of US policy. We try to demonstrate this has nothing to do with politics," Morales said. "We are serious people; it is not like other places where people use their bikes to cruise and get drunk."

Cuba stopped importing Harleys after the 1959 revolution that brought the now-ailing President Fidel Castro to power.

This story has been viewed 3573 times.
TOP top