Cuba, Si!

CNN interviewed former President Jimmy Carter tonight about the thaw in relations with Cuba. Carter, of course, made a historic trip to the Caribbean island in 2002 with the intention of improving relations.

I was fortunate enough to make that trip with Carter. I will write more about that. But for now, here is one of my favorite pieces from that assignment. It ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is about the Harlistas.

 

HAVANA — Cuban legend has it that Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara buried a thousand Harley-Davidson motorcycles after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

Harleys, perhaps one of the noisiest symbols of America, were used by the police and army under the U.S.-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, and Castro felt compelled to reject them.

The tale has it that the bikes were put to rest on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island–buried deep in the soil of Communism but not forgotten.

Ask Adolfo Preito, 44, who as a child watched officers roar by on their hogs. He is an engineer for the Castro regime, but his life revolves around his white 1950 Panhead Harley. His wife, Linett Suarez, is convinced that he would forsake her for his Harley.

“I love this bike. It’s my life,” said Preito.

Not one new Harley has entered Cuba since the revolution–and parts and mechanics are scarce.

Many of the old bikes barely work, patched together with bits and pieces from Soviet-made Ladas and other vehicles, but they represent high-speed rebellion in a land struggling for free expression and civil liberties.

About 200 Harleys are running in Cuba.

Preito has been trying to organize a Harley club with 30 fellow “Harlistas” since 1976. An official stamp of approval of the club’s charter would mean the Harlistas could gather at formal meetings instead of having to get together at streetside cafes and taverns.

“But in Cuba, it’s difficult to form an association,” said Preito, tucking his Latin American Motorcycle Association T-shirt into his jeans. “We are not a political group but a social one. But if we were officially sanctioned, then we could have a clubhouse behind walls, and the government doesn’t want that.”

That’s why Georgia Tech professor Kirk Bowman decided to dedicate time for his 23 study-abroad students in Cuba to meet with the Harlistas.

“I wanted students to get a feel for Cuban civil society,” said Bowman, not revealing at first his love for all things Harley. “Civil society, according to the revolution, is a bourgeois practice and as such has become almost nonexistent.”

That makes organizations that seem conventional to Americans–from church choirs to the Sierra Club–rare in Cuba. Bowman, a specialist in Latin American studies, said that as a social institution, the boisterous Harlistas fall into the same category as Cuba’s independent librarians who quietly defy the government by making materials available for everyone to read.

When he left Atlanta for Cuba, Bowman had no idea whether he would be able to contact the Harlistas, but he brought souvenirs of the American motorcycle maker just in case: T-shirts, bandannas and a new mirror for Preito.

Even with the ears and eyes of Cuban authority monitoring them, the Harlistas find innovative ways to keep their traditions going. They barter for parts to keep their bikes running and make a special homage ride each Father’s Day, which was when Cuba’s most famous mechanic, Pepe Millesima, died.

“Everyone looks at us with admiration,” Suarez said. “People identify it as something American.”

The Harlistas are ordinary people with ordinary jobs making not more than $15 a month. They dream of the day when new Harleys will be available and when they will be able to journey to Daytona, Fla., to join the 300,000 bikers at Bike Week each year.

Some signs of change are starting to surface in Cuba, however. As many as 370 Masonic lodges exist, Bowman said.

“I don’t want to say there is a boom in civil society, but it’s definitely percolating,” he said.

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