The Cuban Bikers. Havana, Cuba
They carefully parked their immaculate, gleaming machines side by side in a row. They were out for a ride together, just like any other group of bikers all over the world.
Proudly, they’ll pose for photos when asked. They’re eager to discuss their bikes and their history, and to show them off.
But there’s a big difference in Cuba as every bike is over 25 years old, and some of them as much as 60!
The Harley-Davidsons, Urals, Nortons, BMWs, or other bikes that you may be lucky enough to spot on Cuba’s roads are valuable, and highly valued, museum pieces, frozen in time.
There are no mirrors, pistons, valves, filters or spark plugs available from the local dealer. Spare parts are cleverly repaired and recycled over and over again. But they’re now desperate for new tyres.
When the American bloqueo was slapped on Cuba on the 7th February, 1962, all imports abruptly stopped. Supplies that had been taken for granted gradually vanished from the shelves. It was necessary to have a desperate re-think if the bikes were going to stay on the road.
It was not so much ‘Born to be Wild’ as ‘Born to be Wily.’
Mechanics became magicians, performing almost impossible feats of reparation on bits of machinery that would be dumped in our country without a second thought.
The Latin American Motorcycle Association (LAMA) was founded in Chicago in 1977 by a group of Puerto Rican bikers, mostly immigrants, to show the world that their perception of bikers isn’t always right.
They set out to help the Latin-American Community by working together with the police, fire brigades, and other official organisations. They carry out helpful services like collecting and donating toys for poor children, which they give out every Christmas
In just over 30 years, LAMA has increased to more than 20,000 members around the world, including Europe, and it continues to grow every year.
At the present time, LAMA has Chapters in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Australia, Canada, Brazil, France, and the USA.
LAMA doesn’t distinguish between races, religions, political beliefs, etc.
Cuba joined LAMA at the end of 1999. There were less than 20 members. Unfortunately the fall of Russia earlier that year threw Cuba into a severe economic crisis even worse than that caused by the American embargo. It was virtually impossible for the Cuban bikers to pay for the membership or their wardrobe. But luckily they received generous help from LAMA members in different parts of the world.
Now there are around 200 members from all over Cuba, divided into six Chapters.
LAMA’s main objective is organising recreational activities, like travelling, camping, and other social events, both for its members, and also for the local Community. They encourage a correct and legal use of the motorcycle through classes, TV programmes, videos, etc.
Although LAMA isn’t a charitable organisation, the different chapters are expected to organise charitable benefits for the less fortunate.
The Cuba members have given donations of toys to children with cancer in hospitals. They have also taken part in a ‘Save Your Piece of our Planet’ campaign, collecting rubbish along the coast.
The Cuban Latin American Mororcycle Association members gather together every Saturday evening from around 5-7.30, on the Havana seafront near the Hotel Nacional. They travel from all over the island whenever they can make it.
If you would like to meet them and admire their bikes, you might consider packing a few spare parts in your luggage to give them.
I’m sure they’d be very gratefully received, and you will be supporting a historically important cause.
The following year I was privileged to be invited back to Cuba for their annual FitCuba Fair.
It was being held on one of Cuba’s beautiful Atlantic islands, or Cayos, as they’re called. And sadly, Cayo Santa Maria was too far for the bikes to travel. They’re getting quite old and fragile now, and of course they’re irreplaceable.
On Saturday, 12th May, we all travelled back to Havana in our coach. We arrived at our hotel at midnight, which was frustrating as the bikers meet on the seafront beside the Hotel Nacional every Saturday evening.
But they knew that I was coming, and on Sunday morning, there they all were to meet me!
It was funny to see them in their biker gear, parked outside the 5-star Hotel Quinta Avenida Havana, and they got many a bemused stare from the arriving and departing guests, especially when they held up the Union Jack I’d brought them!
Sunday 13th May was Mother’s Day, and a far more important day than it is here, so it really was an honour that they’d turned up for my sake.
One of their Members, Max Cucchi, is an Italian photographer who lives and works in Cuba. He owns a 1958 Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide.
As well as the Cuban LAMA group, there’s a Harley group; the Harlistas Cubanos. They don’t have many members, because, surprisingly, most of the old bikes owned by the group are British-made.
Everyone knows about the old American cars in Cuba. But the bikes are virtually unknown, which is a shame as they’re well worth seeing, and helping to preserve and keep roadworthy.
I gave them all the gifts that I’d brought for them, and they gave me some posters of Max’s photos. They all posed for loads of photos.
Finally it was time for the bikers to go and spend the day with their mothers and families.
One by one they said goodbye to me and roared away – slowly!
Next year, the 34th FitCuba is being held in Havana again, with France as the Guest Country, from the 6th-10th May.
Make a note in your diary!
You’ll meet the bikers there!
Embassy of Cuba
167 High Holborn
Tel: 020 7240 6655
Virgin Atlantic flies to Cuba twice a week, from Gatwick.