Cuba's Roads Take on New Look as Classic American Cars Wane
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 09 / 07 / 2011
Sept. 6, 2011. Ellen Creager. The 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo prevents American auto companies or parts suppliers from doing business with Cuba. That didn't matter much in 1961. But now it's half a century later, and these cars need work.
"Sometimes you see a pile of rust on four tires, and you're thinking, how can that thing even move?" said John McElroy of Autoline Detroit, who has been to Cuba. "I saw people who were making their own brake fluid using sap from a bush and mineral spirits."
Cuba is full of do-it-yourself mechanics, using whatever they can dig up to keep their cars running.
Despite the embargo -- started after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution -- the Obama administration could make rules allowing U.S. aftermarket auto parts into Cuba, said Jake Colvin, vice president of global trade issues for the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, D.C.
"Wouldn't that be great, to allow mechanics and old car buffs to go down there with parts under a people-to-people visit?"
he said. "The administration absolutely has the ability and latitude to do that under the law. It just hasn't been a priority."
But that's only half of the story. While creaky American cars are begging for parts, Cuba's roads are taking on a new look.
China, which is Cuba's second-largest trading partner after Venezuela, has supplied thousands of new buses, built by Zhengzhou Yutong Group. Police cars in Havana are Chinese-made Geely CKs. Rental cars and government cars also are by Geely, which has an office in Havana.
Geely has exported more than 5,000 cars to Cuba since 2008. China did $1.8 billion in trade with Cuba last year overall.
While U.S. automakers sit on the sidelines, Chinese automakers are making inroads into the nation of 11 million.
"China knows what it's doing. But do we?" said Rick Shnitzler, co-founder of TailLight Diplomacy, a Philadelphia group that monitors the state of classic autos in Cuba.
Colvin said any car with U.S.-made content cannot be exported to Cuba, so Canadian-made vehicles can't be sent there, even though Canada is a trading partner with Cuba. Other nations also are fearful of angering the U.S. by making a deal with Cuba to provide cars, he said.
General Motors, the most famous car brand in Cuba, isn't pushing for change, either.
"We do not have any lobbying efforts relating to the trade embargo against Cuba," said spokeswoman Ryndee Carney.
Visitors see a lot of cars on Cuba's roads. In addition to Chinese-made models, you'll see South Korean-made Kia and Hyundai vehicles, as well as European cars such as Volkswagens.
Most cars belong to the government. Those with yellow license plates are privately owned, mainly old American cars and a few limping Russian Ladas from the 1970s.
For now, old cars are still the citizens' cars.
Havana taxi driver Walfrido Cabezas cherishes his red 1956 Chrysler DeSoto Diplomat.
"It was the best year for this car," he said, with the assurance of a man who can identify old Detroit steel at 100 paces.
Because he can't get authentic parts and to save fuel, the DeSoto has a 2-liter Toyota engine in it.
Cabezas' favorite old car is the 1960 Cadillac. His dream car? The Audi A6, which he's sure he'll never own.
"The new car is for the doctor, engineer or for famous people," he said.
Early next year, Cuban authorities plan to loosen restrictions and make it easier for private citizens to buy or sell modern cars. That sounds good, but there still will be no private car dealerships. The government still will control supply. Most Cubans could not afford a new car.
Still, "you can be sure this is a huge change for Cuba," said William Burrowes, a Havana tour guide.
Eventually, the change should mean fewer old cars on the road and more new Chinese, Korean and European vehicles.
And if the economy really opens up, "the old cars will disappear in no time," McElroy said.
Not waiting for that moment, Rafael Diaz Perez of Havana is fixing up a 1952 Chevrolet, which needs a new carburetor and distributor.
He's doing all the work himself, as many Cubans do.
"The technology of these cars is very simple, really," he said. He'll get it running.
He has to.
Keeping Detroit Alive in Cuba
The 1955 Dodge has a 2-liter bottle strapped to the driver's-side door frame, with a hose leading from the bottle to a hole in the hood.
It is the gas tank. And it works.
Although the aqua car's interior is stripped, owner Obel Aguado still drives it to work at the Los Jazmines viewpoint snack bar.
"He's going to put a Bulgarian diesel engine in it," another man said proudly. "He has a lot of work to do."
Although Americans buy cars on a whim, Cubans -- who cannot buy, sell or trade vehicles made after 1959 -- have turned genius to keep their old Detroit cars alive.
"The automotive history community should realize that Cuba's achievement with that fleet is one of the most important achievements in automotive history," said Rick Shnitzler, co-founder of TailLight Diplomacy, a Philadelphia group that monitors the state of classic autos in Cuba.
"It is so enraging that our foreign policy provides the rest of the world with a shabby vision of the symbols of our nation," he said. "It's a huge tragedy to have that fleet in this condition."
Nobody knows how many classic American cars remain in Cuba. A Cuban would tell you 170,000, but auto watchers put the number at more like 20,000 to 50,000. Most date to the 1950s, especially the sturdy 1952 Chevrolets. Many are used as taxis or tourist cars.
2011 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.