Cuba is not all handmade cigars, Desi Arnaz, and baseball players, even though they are among her best-known exports. But Cuba’s last American imports are starting to command the attention of collectors everywhere. There are vintage American treasures in Cuba waiting just 90 miles off the United States’ southernmost shoreline, now that the United States is working to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and, Congress permitting, end a trade embargo that is more than half a century old.
But before you charter that Key West cabin cruiser to make the 90-mile voyage to the land that time forgot, and potentially retrieve the antique bike of your dreams, let’s see how the world’s largest time capsule, Cuba, was created.
In 1959, Fidel Castro was a leader of the Cuban Revolution seizing power from President Fulgencio Batista. In 1960, U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo on Cuba, which was later expanded by the Kennedy administration and the U.S. withdrew diplomatic recognition of Cuba on January 3, 1961. The Bay of Pigs invasion in April of that year was a U.S attempt to forcibly remove the Castro administration followed by the tensions of strengthening of Soviet Union/Cuban relations during the Cold War. Cuba is right in America’s backyard and cold-war Soviets dropped in for a visit to Cuba in the fall of ’62, bringing ballistic missiles with them as a housewarming gift. The rancor that ensued between the U.S., Cuba and the Soviets kept the world on edge for nearly two weeks, a period of time now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So, long story short, anything that was made in the U.S.A. and is inside Cuba today got there before the 1960’s, including Harley-Davidson motorcycles. You may be able to imagine that keeping your pre-60’s Harley running without benefit of replacement parts could be a challenge. So, when it comes to barn finds, Cuban Harleys may not be the best “unmolested variants,” but I’ll bet they’re a damn good start.
“Harlistas Cubanos” keep Cuba’s Harleys running and have done so for decades. Estimated at a strength of 100 or so, the Harlistas keep the old American iron on the road by all means necessary. Imagine the passion and dedication one must have to give safe haven to the most iconic of American icons in a country that wasn’t even officially recognized by the U.S. I can imagine anything as overtly American as a Harley would be highly frowned upon by the Cuban government of the day. Notions of smuggled parts, Bridgeport machines turning out handmade parts in clandestine corners of dimly-light garages, and chewing gum and baling wire all come to mind. Keeping a vintage Harley running in Cuba must surely be a labor of love, so you can bet when the U.S buyers finally come knocking after diplomatic relations are restored, they won’t come cheap.
The same holds true for other means of “Made in U.S.A” transportation in Cuba. From bicycles to Biscaynes, Cuba’s best-kept pre-embargo conveyances are bound to go up for sale when we’re on speaking terms again, politics aside.
Aside from the Harlistas, there are also legends of hundreds of buried Harleys from the Batista administration. Harley-Davidson was the bike of choice for Batista’s U.S.-backed regime and when Castro rose to power, he supposedly buried almost 1,000 of them. To add to the intrigue, revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara was holding the shovel. Yes, the same Che Guevara who wrote The Motorcycle Diaries. He was Castro’s right-hand man during the Cuban Revolution.
Che’s son and namesake, Ernesto Guevara, is reportedly preparing to open, or has opened, a motorcycle touring company named La Poderosa Tours which will offer motorcycle tours of Cuba led by Ernesto. La Poderosa was the nickname of Che’s Norton, on which he famously rode through Argentina and Venezuela. La Poderosa Tours—through Cuba mind you—reportedly cost from $3,000 to $5,800 and are not all-inclusive. There are several pictures of your tour guide, Councilor Guevara, posing on vintage Harleys on the Internet. But put your Cuba by Panhead dreams aside; La Ponderosa tours will be run on modern Harleys. How they pull that off, I’m not quite sure, since the embargo is not off yet and the press release was over a year ago.
And so our history lesson comes to a close and not one shot was fired. If you can turn a blind eye toward whatever inequities you believe have taken place in Cuba, regardless of your political persuasion, there are some very interesting motorcycles out there living in a one-of-a-kind environment. To walk away from them due to the circumstances creating that environment would be no better than helping Castro bury 1,000 more Harleys.