A month prior to President Barack Obama’s December 2014 announcement to mend U.S. ties with Cuba, a country we have embargoed since 1960, I travelled to Havana as part of a cultural exchange.
Arriving in Cuba, the effect economic restraints have had on that country was clearly evident by the visible testimony of 54 years of decay. As soon as the awe of the multitude of old 1950s American cars wore off (many powered with Chinese diesel engines), my eyes were drawn to the funky old socialist motorcycles navigating the streets of Havana, a sidecar attached to nearly every one.
One of the first to catch my eye was a chrome tanked, East German, 1970s-era MZ (Motorenwerke Zschopau), and it was followed by many more. Most appeared to be the TS250 model, and most seemed to carry one, two, or if fitted with a sidecar, three people. The engine is a bulky single-cylinder with blocky cooling fins, but the headlamp shell is gorgeous, with an integrated speedometer similar to a 1960s BMW.
Czech Jawas from the ’70s and ’80s seemed to be popular motorcycles. During my travels in Cuba, I stumbled into the town of Hershey. Between 1920 and 1940, Milton Hershey had a thriving sugar factory here. The old factory looks completely abandoned and desolate, but on further inspection, I realized that among all the deterioration, people still work there, using the factory’s 70-year-old machinery to fix old trains.
While talking with some of the machinists and welders, I happened across an old Jawa with a German sidecar. The owner, Toma Rey Gutierrez, came out, and with my limited Spanish we began chatting about old bikes. I showed him photos of my old BMWs, and he was happy to pull out his circa-1972 Jawa and show it to me.
Ural motorcycles came to Cuba in 1973, initially supplied by the Soviet Union for military use, but available to the public starting in 1975. In Havana, Urals are almost always equipped with a sidecar.
Riders all wear helmets, and 3/4 and half helmets can be purchased at the occasional gas station. However, most locals wear equestrian helmets purchased for about 20 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, equal to about $22 U.S.) through some sort of Cuban intranet just as a courtesy for the police. My efforts to purchase one as a souvenir failed.
Modern 250cc Suzukis seem to be the choice of motorcycle taxis, and an occasional ’70s era Vespa was parked up on a sidewalk. On a few occasions I was told about a Harley-Davidson club that meets in Havana on certain Sundays, with most Harleys made in the 1940s.
A local motorcycle tire repair shed was one of the only “official” establishments I could find for motorcycles. I mostly found people working on their cars and motorcycles in the street, with the assistance of whoever was hanging around the neighborhood.
It is customary for vehicles in Cuba to be passed on within a family, so you often see someone driving a vehicle inherited from a grandparent who originally owned it when it was new. Any new vehicles brought to Cuba after 1970 were assigned to be purchased by people with relevant positions in society, like doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, athletes, etc. However, being a non-consumerist, minimalist culture, many Cubans thought it was healthier to ride a bike or walk and would turn down the opportunity to purchase a vehicle.
The communist imports lasted from the 1970s until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed, causing what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period.” About 80 percent of the country’s imported resources quit flowing in, causing the Special Period, in which the country’s economy was crippled and food, medicine and transportation items became scarce. Many Cubans speak of the Special Period as a time during which the country had to work together to pool their resources. After the Special Period, Chinese, Japanese and other European vehicles started to trickle into Cuba, but only for official use, not for purchase. Nowadays, a private Cuban citizen can buy a car or motorcycle, but it is joked that one could buy either a 2009 Peugeot — or a loft in New York City!
It is uncertain what the future holds between Cuba and the USA, but people in Cuba are 99.9 percent hopeful because of the recent efforts between Raul Castro and U.S. President Obama. Cuba’s infrastructure could use some improvements, but hopefully the charm and character of Cuba, and its people, will remain intact. That includes their old vehicles, too!