‘The ultimate irony is that these American symbols of the freedom to travel have found their home on an island to which Americans are not free to travel.’
Automobiles represent different things for different people. They can be status symbols, or simple everyday transportation, or collectors' items, or just a damn nuisance. But every now and then, the automobile can transcend being merely a machine and take on a special meaning. In this case, the classic American cars in Cuba are a perfect metaphor for relations between the two countries.
There are hundreds of thousands of these cars on the island. Mainly from the 1940s and ’50s, they're relics of the Cold War, caught in a time warp that is stuck nearly half a century behind us. Tattered and well-worn these Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths are held together by incessant maintenance and constant repairs. Yet, they are an indispensable part of Cuba's transportation network.
Some of them, very few, are lovingly restored. But most are faded, patched-up hulks that have to be coaxed to life every morning. The majority have turned their odometers over a handful of times and have driven the equivalent of going to the moon and back.
Yet, there's something very appealing, almost romantic about these cars. Coated in a patina of history they hearken back to a time when Detroit iron dominated the global auto industry, a time of can-do confidence when buyers were dazzled by toothy chrome grilles, bombsight hood ornaments and sweeping tail fins. But the ultimate irony is that these American symbols of the freedom to travel have found their home on an island to which Americans are not free to travel.
Cuba is a poor country with one of the lowest income levels in the Caribbean. The per-capita GDP is not much higher that Haiti's. Although the government does import a few new cars from Europe, Japan and Korea to be used as taxis, the Cuban people simply can't afford new models. So they make do with the cars that were there before the revolution, before the embargo. Like so many pages in a history book, they help tell the story of present-day Cuba.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the government nationalized all companies. The rich fled the country, but the small middle class that remained had to surrender its shops, farms and small businesses to the total control of the state.
They were, however, able to keep their possessions, including the cars they owned. These automobiles are handed down through generations like family heirlooms, or they're sold off for about $4,000 apiece to be used as private taxis.
It's a struggle to own a car in Cuba, even one you inherited, what with the average wage only $10 a month (a month!) and gasoline costing $3.80 a gallon. But these cars are kept running so that the next generation may enjoy the pleasures of motoring.
When Cuban car owners can't get the parts they need, they make their own. They'll mix together rubbing alcohol and mineral oil and tree sap to make brake fluid. They'll hand-hammer body parts using faded pictures and fading memories to try and recreate the originals. They'll bolt on parts from other makes and models. They'll use anything that their creativity can conceive as long as it fits their budget and keeps their beloved cars running.
Most people believe that the reason Cuba is held back economically is because of the U.S. trade embargo with the island. But that's not really the case. Many countries relish the opportunity to thumb their noses at Uncle Sam, and huffily proclaim they'll do business with whomever they please. Nearly every year the U.N. soundly condemns the embargo with resolutions that pass with huge, lopsided majorities. Spain, Mexico, Canada, France, Japan, Russia, South Korea, China, Italy, and the Netherlands, to name a few, openly trade with Castro's Cuba to the tune of nearly $5 billion a year.
The problem is that these are mostly imports, causing a huge trade imbalance for the island. Aside from some sugar, nickel, cigars, rum and a few medical supplies, Cuba has little to sell. It really doesn't make anything. The problem is that it's shackled by a command economy, the type of which hasn't worked anywhere in the world. It doesn't work in Cuba, either.
Far from hurting Cuba, the embargo gives Castro an excuse to explain away the failures of his Communist system. It provides a rallying point to berate the colossus to the North and to further his revolutionary fervor. Ironically, the quickest way the United States could undermine support for Fidel would be to end the embargo and strip away the lie that it is crippling the Cuban economy.
Anyone visiting this sunny island can sense the latent economic vigor percolating just below the surface. Historically, Cuba always was the wealthiest nation in the Caribbean, and there's little doubt that an open economy could quickly restore its former economic stature.
If and when that happens, you'll see a wave of car collectors descend upon the country to snap up the classic old cars that are there. But in the meantime they'll continue to chug down the road because they, like most of Cuba's citizens, are prohibited from leaving the island.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” and “American Driver” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.