Cuba's digital destination
by Ricardo Alberto Pérez
Being a Harley-Davidson mechanic in Cuba is something like being a mechanic for almendrones, those old American cars from the mid-twentieth century. When you talk to some of these men you realize how it is possible that those wheeled treasures are still in motion and fascinating both Cubans and foreigners visiting our Island.
Mayito Machado is a Harley owner and mechanic. The two bikes he has owned were both bought when they were not functioning. The first one was a 1947 vintage, which he swears to us was delivered to him in pieces in a couple of baskets. With much patience and inventiveness, he managed to bring it back to life. During the process, he had to cook up several innovations, such as replacing part of the crankshaft with similar parts coming from a Soviet truck. He tells us that after putting it together, he has never had to fix it again.
His second bike was rather special since it was a 1942 Harley that had been part of the US Army war surplus after WW II. At the end of the war, the Americans sold off a lot of these vehicles and some got to Cuba, trucks and motorbikes included. This particular Harley was distinguished by having the letter “W” (for war) in its serial number and it is more valuable than most because it was specially reinforced for the work it was destined to do.
In order to repair this motorcycle, he says that he bought a barrel of spare parts wholesale from which he selected what he finally needed. He particularly had to weave some magic with the transmission and he adapted rubber from a Soviet artillery cannon for the job. Again, this combination of elements coming from different societies and cultures becomes a curiosity and a strange paradox.
Machado says that in Cuba most of the old car and motorcycle owners end up becoming mechanics. He sees himself as a natural mechanic because ever since he was very young he was always fixing things with his father. Later on he graduated as a mechanical engineer.
Cuban mechanics tend to talk about the enormous number of tools and machinery that is available in the country, specifically lathes. They all agree that the lathe and the clever men who operate them have been their best allies because they have had the amazing ability to fabricate the spare parts that are not available in Cuba and to create veritable miracles when they replace certain accessories. They also value bodywork experts, painters and upholsterers. Everything comes together in a typically Cuban way and the wheels just keep on rolling.
There are some veritable legends among these mechanics. For example there is Noel Maqueira who is an artist able to take any bike apart and then reconstruct it according to his own vision. He has the help of his entire family in this fascinating process.
You can find such mechanics all over Havana and its environs. Some of these locations are very picturesque and have become essential ingredients in the Harley passion. Mechanics such as Sergio Morales never give up in their quest. This man spends his days repairing motorbikes in the Luyanó neighborhood, just as José Sobrino does in Arroyo Naranjo and Luis Enrique in El Vedado.
Sergio Morales has been involved with Harleys since the 1980s and he dedicates his time to repairing and restoring motorbikes. He tells us that he has learned a lot of the necessary secrets from the legendary Havana mechanic Pepe Milésima.
Sergio has owned three Harleys. He has travelled several times to the US invited by Harley-Davidson and has visited their factory. His name, as well as that of his wife, Miriam Hernández, appears on a plaque in Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum. He is one of those people who believe that those bikes which we are so proud of in Cuba can no longer be considered to be American. Because of all the energy and transformations bestowed on them here, they belong more to us that to anyone else.
Even though nowadays it is difficult—if not outright impossible—to obtain original spare parts as times gone by, our mechanics never give up and continue to amaze us with their innate capacity for invention, which seems to be a quintessential feature among Cubans, in all fields.