Jan. 20, 2011 -- Now that the U.S. government has announced an easing of travel restrictions to Cuba, more Americans will be able to see first hand a collection of artefacts which at least one group of Cubans treasure: Harley Davidson motorcycles.
Cuban Harley owners, who call themselves "Harlistas," have kept their bikes, some 150 of them, running using homemade spare parts for 49 years because they had no way to order up a carburetor or gear box from America.
For 52 years Harleys were officially evil symbols of American imperialism. But prior to the communist revolution in 1959, Harleys, which began arriving on the island in the 1920s, were the official motor bike of the Cuban police and army.
The Cold War embargo prohibited sales of Harleys, and most other goods, to Cuba, so the bikes were locked in a time wrap. Thus the newest models on the streets of Havana today are from the late 1950s.
There have long been rumors, never substantiated, that a secret cult of Harley owners buried hundreds of the bikes so they would not be destroyed by the Soviet supported regime.
Regardless of the method of storage, at least some of the bikes have survived and are running. And they're not only tolerated in Cuba these days, they're actually celebrated.
Times are changing.
Cuban rock singer David Blanco, dressed like the Fonz from 'Happy Days' even rode his Harley into a concert at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, where Fidel Castro used to deliver five-hour speeches on the evils of America, and it's capitalist icons.
"We're opening up to the world and the world is opening up to us," said Blanco. "All young people here in Cuba have lots of dreams. Dreams don't have limits."
Actor Colin Firth, in accepting his Golden Globe trophy in Hollywood, said it was the only thing between him and a Harley Davidson motor cycle, i.e. a midlife crisis. We don't know whether Castro ever rode a Harley during his midlife period, but if you buy into in the popular myth and karma of Harleys, you might believe that history would have have been different had the Communist leader felt the spirit of America throbbing between his legs instead of aimed at his head.
Now, even with the he dream of owing a Harley did have its limits, and still does. The new easing of U.S. government travel restrictions will not allow 'Halistas' to open an American hog shop in Havana.