Hog Wild: Cuba and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

A Harley rider hurls fire in the face of the devil on a black quilt adorning the wall of Sergio Morales's house in Havana. Who or what the devil represents in Cuba is a topic of hushed political debate, but for the enduring Harley Davidson riders on this island, the 160 remaining classic American motorcycles are a certain, treasured source of deliverance.

As with the fabled American cars in Cuba - the spiderwebbed windshields and broken doors jostling down torn roads at maximum speeds of 30 miles per hour - the Harleys tell the story of the inventiveness of the Cuban people and the need for solidarity.

But as with Harley riders the world over, the bikes amount to much more. In the face of a stymied search for liberty, they are precious, if barely working vehicles of freedom and rebellion. The son and namesake of Ernesto "Che" Guevara quietly owns two.

Cuba is a place of legends, and legend has it that Che and Cuban leader Fidel Castro buried nearly a thousand Harleys after the 1959 revolution as a rejection of Fulgencio Batista's US-backed regime. Batista's army and police forces all used Harley Davidsons.

"Others say that; we can't," says Mr. Morales, the cardinal mechanic of Harleys in Cuba. He says, "One must remember who is running the show down here." If necessity is the mother of invention, Morales is the protective patriarch of Cuban Harleys.

"We'll figure it out," he tells one Harlista - as the riders are known here - as both stare intently at a rusted metal cylinder.

"Harleys are pure, unlike politics," he says, wary of mixing the two. "For us it is about the bike itself, not where it comes from." Above his head hangs a poster of a gleaming new Harley proclaiming "An American Legend." "Cuba is a test for Harleys and a test of our ingenuity," he continues.

Indeed, there are no Harley parts in Cuba, a result of the US economic embargo. So the conservation of the pre-1960 bikes has become a study in Cuban resourcefulness. Among half-ripped vinyl chairs, Morales looks at a skeleton of a 1946 Harley that looks beyond repair.

Morales's workshop is a metal shanty made from odd scraps of garbage with the look of postmodern squatter art. There are piston parts, rusted paint, screws, and makeshift tools. It is his pride, his office. He pays the government most of what he takes in for the transfigurations he performs on aging Harley's.

Morales tells a joke: "The CIA sends an agent down to live in Cuba and report back on the state of the economy. He comes back later muttering and is thrown into an asylum. 'I don't get it,' he keeps saying. 'There's no gas, but the cars are still running. There's no food in the stores, but everyone cooks dinner every night. They have no money, but they ... go dancing.' "

The Cuban economy is beginning to recover from an economic collapse caused by the fall of the Soviet bloc.

According to official estimates, from 1989 to 1993, Cuba's gross domestic product dropped by 35 percent. In response, Mr. Castro has cultivated a tourist industry that has replaced sugar as the largest source of hard currency.

Still, the trappings of capitalism remain out of reach. The average Cuban makes $12 a month.

Morales, however, has seen free enterprise up close. In March of this year, he traveled to Daytona, Florida at the invitation of the state's Harley Davidson club. Daytona is the mecca of Harley riders. The annual pilgrimage brings nearly 300,000 motorcycles together. He smiles, staring at a photo of himself in a sea of bikes with the Cuban flag emblazoned across his T-shirt.

"It was like a glossy magazine, like legends told to us by foreigners," he says. The most Harleys he had ever seen together in one place before was 40 at his daughters' weddings. Both married Harlistas.

In Daytona, Morales could finally converse in a language he had been learning for decades but never had the opportunity to speak. He called his wife, Miriam, also a Harley rider, and said, "If I die today, I will have seen it all. The deafening roar is the sweetest sound I've ever heard."

As dogs hear different frequencies, so too do Harley riders, he says. The dinning rumble of the engines is apparently a melody only they can perceive.

There are nearly a million Harley Davidsons in the US and more than 200,000 others elsewhere around the world. The company founded in Milwaukee in 1903 by William Harley and the Davidson Brothers is the only remaining American motorcycle manufacturer.

Dave Elshoff, the company spokesman, says that those riders who have gone to Cuba find it hard to believe the pristine condition the bikes are in. "It's not just the ingenuity, but the pride they take in their machines. They are really showpieces of the island."

"Though in the end," he admits, "after all the backyard engineering, the bailing wire holding the bikes together, and the converted Alfa Romeo pistons, they are probably more hybrid than Harley."

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