When it comes to car culture, the world looks increasingly similar wherever you go. No longer can you find places that run cars unlike those you see in your own country. Except for one: Cuba!
I first visited the island 13 years ago and fell in love with the 1950’s American cars that got left behind by the revolution in 1959. Returning this year, I was amazed to discover that while the buildings of Havana are increasingly decrepit, the old American cars have been revitalised and actually grown in number. You don’t have to look hard to see all manner of finned and chromed barges – that have no right to still be going strong 60 years on. Listen carefully and you find out why.
Throbbing V8 engines have usually been replaced by small, modern four-cylinder units from Hyundai or other inexpensive imported cars. The bodies of the donor cars may have rotted away, but the engines are strong enough to tow the American hulks at sedate speeds and rather more economically. They all run around on wider chromed alloy wheels and sit rather taller than they used to. This is vital to handle the very wide range of road conditions on the impoverished island.
Interiors are interesting, the old steel dashboards survive rather better than those with plastic padded sections. The restored seats are still mainly upholstered in two tone vinyl and feature those clear plastic seat covers I remember from the 60s in the UK. Bad enough in temperate Britain, they’re crazy here, where the two seasons are described as ‘hot’ and ‘hotter’. If you have bare legs, you risk severe burns just climbing aboard. You also risk banging your head as the 50s coupe styling means a low roof. The cars are vast on the outside but surprisingly small inside.
Watching the lines of slow-moving old cars cruising down the straight main street of Vinales (a very popular tourist spot) you start to feel like Marty McFly returning to the ’50s in the first ‘Back to the Future’ movie. But you won’t see any Coca-Cola signs, or other US brands – only these ancient cars.
Another reason for their successes is that this is no mobile museum or collectors vanity project. Most of the old Caddies, Dodges and Chevies work hard for their living, taxiing round the visitors who provide a huge proportion of Cuba’s national income. If you’re not careful, you’ll be charged 50 cuc (£40 or so) for an hour of dreamboating along the Melancon promenade by the sea in Havana. Negotiate hard but you’re still paying £30.
Bearing in mind that 80% of Cubans work for the government and their pay can be as little as £50 per month, running a classic is a very lucrative proposition. A fully restored Chevy Bel Air can be worth as much as £50,000 here – roughly the same as in the UK. So many taxi drivers will rent the cars. They make a good living while the real owner gets a capital gain and an income. This has to be better than owning property in Cuba, where the buildings are owned by the government and the most you can is buy a lease. It’s not all bad though as you can live rent free. This is vital if a family is trying to exist on the low average incomes from government jobs.
Modern cars tend to be Indonesian or Chinese. This includes our excellent Yu Tong tour bus, one of thousands on the island. But the Chinese influence is also worrying. Huge swathes of land and infrastructure projects are related to Chinese overseas investment. With Chinese government backing, they have more muscle than private enterprise, or the Cuban government, and can win any bids.
But you’d have to worry that the Chinese interest is just as mercenary and politically motivated as the Soviet, British, Spanish and Americans who came before them. The American cars are great, but they were owned by the Mafia-controlled casino and resort employees rather than ordinary Cubans. Thankfully these American cast-offs have been put to more peaceful use here than the munitions left behind in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soviet money also helped build the roads, and they are lasting well outside the towns. Traffic is light in the countryside. Major dual carriageways will feature people sheltered in the shade from the bridges waiting for lifts. Cuba’s socialist principles of sharing turn the private car into a low-cost taxi.
The buildings are architecturally varied and fascinating but are dilapidated, apart from those where UNESCO has stepped in to reverse the decay.
One other new policy has also been helpful to the buildings here. Visitors (like us) can now stay in Casas Particulaires. This is a scheme encouraging people to rent out, and even build additional, rooms for visitors. A variation on the AirBnB theme, it has expanded the island’s ability to accommodate visitors without building hideous tower block hotels – and ensures the income goes mainly to the local people. We loved it. Owners spoke English as competently as our Spanish, so it was fun trying to make sense of things. But all the rooms had aircon and very decent en-suite bathrooms. One other welcome difference to AirBnB is the actual presence of a very fine second B! Breakfasts included fresh fruit, guava juice, strong coffee and lovely omelettes. It has to be admitted that this was often the best meal of the day.
The sense of being in another era is heightened by other aspects of the culture.
One is shopping. I spent a week trying to buy a pair of swimming shorts and failed dismally. In central Havana I chanced upon a United Colours of Benetton franchise. Inside, it also felt like a return to the 50s despite some modern stock. When I asked about swimwear, the assistant looked at me with the same incredulity as if I’d asked to pay by credit card. Paying for everything by cash would be fine if you could easily find some. We were in a queue outside a large bank in Havana when a member of staff came out to tell us that they had run out of money.
A real positive cultural throwback is the live music. Ry Cooder woke us up to the joys of Cuba’s Spanish-African beats 15 years ago – with his film Buena Vista Social Club and best-selling CD. Today as then, most decent bars and restaurants will feature a house band that would give BVSC a run for its money. And you can even go and see the original band in action. Except that like the cars, time has taken its toll and the band’s engines have had to be replaced by younger models. I am very proud to wear my red-starred 2007 tour T shirt, which even included the band coming to Norfolk where I saw them play.
Cuba is making progress again despite the decades of hostility from the US. Barack Obama was keen to turn the tide and reopened the US embassy, much welcomed by Cubans. You won’t need to work hard to guess what Trump has done since taking power. It’s not only America’s cars that are a relic from the 50s…
This trip was done with an excellent tour company called Intrepid. Our Cuban driver Josh and tour leader Roger looked after us very well indeed. Our party of 16 (including travellers from Africa and Australia) all really enjoyed our look into real Cuban life – as you can see from the picture below.