Alie asked why there were so many “hot rods” in Southwest Florida. I replied that many men who were teenagers in the 1960s remember when it was cool to take a twenty year-old car and “soup it up.” But most couldn’t afford to do it. Many, now retired, can afford an homage to their youth. The same age group has a particular nostalgia for the automobiles of the 1950s, an era when the car companies made styling changes every year. You could not only tell a Chevy from a Ford, you could tell a 1956 Chevy from a 1957 Chevy. Those Chevys and Fords are still on the streets in Cuba.
Cuban officials will say it is because of the U.S. trade “blockade.” They are mostly right. After Cuba started seizing private property including farms and factories from American owners, President Kennedy imposed an embargo. [Am I cynical to believe the execution of several hundred “counter-revolutionaries was not enough reason?] The embargo, however, did not apply to automobiles. In retaliation however, Fidel Castro prohibited the importation of North American automobiles.
The Cuban state controlled almost everything, but private ownership and sale of used cars was still possible. Today, these old cars are a monument to the ingenuity of the average Cuban citizen.
Parts were no longer available when cars were damaged or needed repairs. Cubans call today’s vehicles “United Nations” cars because inside they have parts from all over the world. Diesel fuel is half as expensive as gasoline in Cuba, so most now have diesel engines, often from Hyundai. Soviet Union Latas and Volgas, which were not as reliable, were dissected for parts. In some cases, parts were fabricated on site.
There are an estimated 60,000 classic U.S. cars in Cuba, fifty percent from the 1950s and the rest from the 40s and 30s.
When the embargo began to be relaxed, U.S. automobile aficionados salivated at the thought of getting their hands on the cars. But reality has intervened. At auction, a Chevrolet Bel Air with original parts might fetch $50,000. The same “U.N.” car from Cuba would be unlikely to fetch more than $5,000.
Classic cars do it all in Cuba: personal use; taxis; and public transportation. Tourists love them, especially the taxis in Havana that have better maintained bodies and interiors. An hour tour costs about fifty U.S. dollars and is often in a convertible, perfect for taking pictures. While taxis for Cubans are restricted to certain routes much like a bus, tourists may take them on a negotiated basis. It is good for the Cuban economy and is certainly good for the drivers in a country where the average income is between twenty and thirty dollars per month.
BBC reported last year the state has modified its monopoly on new cars sales. Formerly, permits to buy were issued only to a few privileged officials, artists and athletes. Permits were traded on the black market for cash. Raul Castro has now opened permits for non-U.S. cars to the general public.
However, the state still has a monopoly on sales and sets the price. According to the BBC report, a Peugeot 508 listed at $29,000 is available for $262,000. But others sell for less, and the government says profits will be used to develop public transport. Considering the Cuban average income, it is hard to imagine there will be much profit — but, of course, Cuba is socialist, not capitalist.
Dates of our visit: 12 to 19 December 2018.
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