The Politics of the Classic Car in Havana

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Hello from Havana! Well, I am not exactly in Havana anymore, but I did spend a few weeks there and took some awesome pictures. If you are a classic car enthusiast, Havana is the place for you. It is as amazing as you can imagine. I will get into the politics and history of Cuba later, but for now let’s just bask in the glory of American made beauties. The classic cars in Havana are used almost exclusively as cabs and tour mobiles. Leaving Miami at 2PM, arriving in Havana at 3PM, and being picked up by a (pre-scheduled) 53 Chevy Bel Aire is nothing short of mind blowing. Many of the cars have been retrofitted with diesel engines, air conditioning, bigger transmissions, and even car alarms. Yes, Cubans are very resourceful.

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While there are fabulously maintained antiques, most cars in Havana are dilapidated and barely hanging on, while others sit idle. Having a car is a luxury, most being handed down for 3 to 4 generations. Buying a new car, even car parts, is nearly impossible,although restrictions have been lifted, somewhat. I’ll get into the details later.

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These beautiful cars are exclusively for tourists, as locals cannot afford such a luxury. The drivers usually speak English well, and like most Cubans are highly educated. Our first driver had a master’s degree in computer forensics, our tour driver had a masters in mechanical engineering. Although education is free, there is a two year service requirement after graduation, and the salary for all workers is a socialist-inspired equal share, $14 a month. That’s $14, as in two fives, three ones, and four quarters. A month.

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Dotting the city and in response to the easing of restrictions for private ownership, there are a multitude of construction projects underway. There are a few different types of ownership allowed in Cuba. Most of the businesses are owned and operated by ‘the people’ aka the Cuban government. A few entities are partnerships between a foreign company and the Cuban government, some are owned outright by an independent foreign company, and some are owned by Cuban nationals, but only if they are married to a foreigner. Yes, folks. For the most part, Cuban nationals cannot own private property. There are a few exceptions being made, small shops, small kitchens and rental rooms running out of the home. This is a very new development, and changing quickly.

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The official motorcade consists of outdated Soviet, Chinese, and Polish trucks, vans, and cars, spewing leaded gas and diesel. Some of the newer fleet of government cars consist of Fiats, Peugeots, and Jeeps that seem to mimic the Range Rover, but they are Chinese. Most of the cars, however are decades, even generations old. The air around the capital is thick with dense exhaust, something most Americans haven’t experienced since the 70’s.

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Why, again, don’t Cubans own new cars? Of course, the American embargo against trade and imports with Cuba is a major factor. Coupled with the fact that it would take the average Cuban 20+ years to save up enough to buy a car at US prices, there is another barrier: the Cuban government, who sets prices for all goods and services, arbitrarily sets the price for new cars a bit higher for sale in Cuba. For example, a new car that would sell for 15k here in the US, is priced around 40k in Cuba. Why? Because the government says so. Unless the Cuban national has a very rich relative, a very, very, rich relative in Miami, it’s not going to happen.

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This is how many Cubans get around in Havana, the bicitaxi. Relatively new (15 years or so), it is a reflection of the easing of restrictions on Cubans making their own money. There is a public bus system, but it’s unreliable and overcrowded. A newer bus system called Viazul designed for tourists is better, but just gets you from city to city, not points within the city. Most Cubans in Havana that I spoke to preferred taxis. There is also a fantastic practice of hailing any moving vehicle, agreeing upon a set price with the driver (usually 1-3 dollars) and hopping in for a ride. You will probably end up sharing the taxi or the car with several different people on their way to the market, work,  or home, but you’ll eventually get to where you need to be.

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While Havana is known for the classic cars, this is what you see when you leave the tourist dominated neighborhoods: old, raggedy, Soviet era hoopties. Having a car in Havana is rare, and makes the difference between being poor, and being less poor.  If you have a car, you can make money.  Some Cubans have been known to trade their home for a car, it’s that important.

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I had the chance to ride in a 55 Chevy Bel Air, red and white with cream interior. All the cars had that thick upholstery plastic, like your crazy aunt used to have over her ‘good couch’. I also rode in a 52 Dodge Coronet, modified from three on the stick to five speed, air conditioning, and a car alarm. The a 50 Chevy Coupe was the car I rented (with the help of my local ex-pat) to Jose Marti Airport. The interior was a little run down, there were no door or window knobs, but it was glorious. Oh, and the engine had been converted to diesel. It sounded as beautiful as you would imagine. If you want to get around Havana or the island, I suggest you rent a taxi. If you like the driver, get his contact info and ring him up whenever you want to go somewhere. He will be available (if you tipped him appropriately.) Rest assured, they are connected to a network, and if your guy isn’t available, he will connect you with someone who is. That’s just the way it works when there is limited to no infrastructure, including and especially WIFI. More on that, later.

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A view of the  old city.

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Stay tuned for my next post, “The Real Havana”

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