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Cuba's motorcycle culture roaring back to life

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
April 17, 2012 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Those who have preserved Cuba's motorcycle culture are called "harlistas"
  • Harley-Davidson motorcycles are enjoying a comeback in Cuba
  • Cuba's first ever nationwide Harley rally was held recently in Varadero

Varadero, Cuba (CNN) -- Decades navigating the roads in Cuba have left deep scars on Sergio Morales' jet black 1947 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

The Harley's frame is a battlefield of craters and gashes. The frozen odometer stopped counting at 45,000 kilometers. In Cuba, where little is in abundance save shortages, Morales uses a car wheel for his motorcycle's back tire.

But when Morales kick-starts the Harley, its engine roars to full-throated life.

Morales is a "harlista," what Cubans call the small band of men and women who have preserved the island's motorcycle culture.

That hasn't been an easy task in a country where a five-decades-old U.S. economic embargo makes getting new parts -- much less bikes -- near impossible.

"It's work. You have to have spirit, desire," Morales said. "There's nowhere to buy spare parts here so over the years we have had to find alternative fixes or invent our own."

And being a Harley fanatic courted controversy in the early years of the Cuban revolution when everything American, from jazz music to rock 'n' roll, was considered suspect. It also didn't help that Harleys were the motorcycle of choice for police during the Batista dictatorship.

But now the iconic American bikes are enjoying something of a comeback.

Over the weekend, Morales was one of about 50 harlistas to participate in Cuba's first ever nationwide Harley-Davidson rally in the beach resort town of Varadero.

"It's an opportunity for us to celebrate not just the Harley but the Cuban Harley," Morales said. "And in one of the prettiest places with the best beaches in the country."

The sight of the motley crew of black leather-sporting motorcyclists pulling into a seaside town seemed like a scene straight out of the classic Marlon Brando film "The Wild One," where a band of bikers terrorize a small community.

But in Varadero it was the bikers who were beset upon by admiring locals and tourists. One family of American tourists said they had changed their travel plans to come from Mexico to Cuba for a few days after learning about the event.

"We are here to give these guys a hand; it's lot of work to keep their bikes running," said event organizer Kristen MacQueen.

Cuban Harley aficionados are unique, MacQueen said, because their vintage bikes are not just for show.

"A lot of the people use them in their everyday life to get around," MacQueen said. "For some people here, it's their only form of transportation."

The bikes lined up at the Varadero rally were a mix of Harleys from the decades leading up to Cuba's 1959 revolution. Some Harleys were adorned with the face of revolutionary icon Che Guevara, others with American eagles.

In between demonstrating their agility in biking competitions, the harlistas checked out one another's rides and explained to tourists how they keep them running.

Even with foreigners bringing in replacement parts from the outside, keeping the Harleys running is no small feat. Many of the bikes used parts cannibalized from Asian and old Soviet bikes and cars. Some Harlistas are legendary in the community for hand-making the parts they need.

But however challenging, none of the Cuban Harley fanatics says they plan to abandon their passion any time soon.

"You get to a point where the Harley becomes part of your family," Cuban Harley owner Yuri Garcia said. "You become inseparable. If you sold it, you'd never find another bike like it."

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