Cruising in Cuba – Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba

This country does not have a great car museum. It is a great car museum.

It’s not unusual to find cars familiar to Americans such as new Mercedes and BMW’s cruising Cuban streets with typically romantic names like Amargura (bitterness), Esperanza (hope) and Animas (souls). Also common are the tiny and unreliable Russian Ladas, which have such a bad reputation that the joke is “You don’t have a car, you have a Lada.”

But the real stars of the streets that turn visitor’s heads are the American cars. Imports of vehicles were stopped after Castro took over in 1959. A popular sport of Cuba-goers is to debate the various makes and models, much as bird-watchers try to identify particular species.

There are an estimated 250,000 vintage American vehicles within Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and home to 11 million people. Some are relics rusting in the streets, but most continue to rumble along, a testimonial both to American manufacturing know-how and Cuban inventiveness.

“Why buy anything but an American car?” observed one Cuban car-owner, Jorge Cabrera. “Look how long they’ve lasted.”

Cubans who make an average of $25 a month can often not afford cars, however, much less pay the $4 a gallon for gasoline. Some or perhaps even many of the American cars that often come from the 1950s era have been passed down from family members.

Many of the American cars may look like they have been re-done with house paint and rumble more than roar down the street, but they are a point of pride for Cubans. Cubans say they view cars with the reverence the French have for four-star restaurants.

Prior to the revolution, Cuba was the largest importer of American cars in the Caribbean. And even today, cars are regarded as the most valuable luxury item in the country.

“These cars are like old friends,” said Alberto Ibarra, a doorman at the still-luxurious Hotel Nacional. “People love them so they will do anything to keep them alive.”

Car mechanics are valued enough to be among the highest paid workers in Cuba, said Dan Heller, a San Francisco-based photographer who sells Cuban photos.

“Owning a car is at the top of the food chain in social and economic attitudes,” Heller said. The family Sunday drives that used to characterize America remain common in today’s Cuba.

When a car breaks down in Cuba, there’s no AAA or other auto service to call for help. Old-style gas stations with rabbit logos and “rapido” signs are scattered across the country but their repair capabilities are often limited to patching and filling tires.

Cubans are known as very friendly people, however, and that’s evident when strangers frequently stop to help others with mechanical problems.

Still, visitors have to wonder: With a long-standing American embargo on trade and without easy access to American parts, how do the Cubans keep these cars running?

Jorge is an engineer turned taxi driver-guide because like so many professional Cubans in recent years he has found more money in tourism. He asks that his last name not be used, but by necessity he is familiar with the auto situation in Cuba.

Naturally enough, for taxi drivers such as Jorge, doing most of their own repairs is a necessity. In common with others in his profession, Jorge also passes on this knowledge by training his own children as mechanics.

“Parts are hard enough to get, but an even bigger problem is finding service manuals,” he said.

American manuals are not always necessary because many U.S. car engines long ago were totally replaced by Russian or Romanian Diesel models.

One repair technique is to smuggle in parts illegally. Car parts are also bought through black market operators who offer many other products not openly sold here.

But even more common perhaps is for machine shops to re-make existing parts to fit American vehicles. Creative mechanics have twisted and milled odd scraps of metal to keep motors, bodies and suspensions together.

“We have to invent a lot,” said William Escalante, a mechanic who works at one of Cuba’s auto repair centers on Del Valle Street.

A Cuban antique car owner who asked that his name not be used cites his own 1953 Oldsmobile as an example. The car runs with the help of a used and modified generator from a Soviet Lada. The auto’s transmission is a 1956 Olds model. It’s differential is from a 1954 Buick. There’s an oversized battery in the trunk that comes from a boat.

Another owner is behind the wheel of a 1957 Chevy that clunks down the road in smoke-spewing style powered by a Russian tractor diesel engine. He cites stories of an air filter being repaired by using a grandmother’s hairnet. And rusted gasoline lines being replaced by hoses used for medical enemas.

Cuba has been increasing its tourist trade by 20 percent a year and the country is bursting with new construction as hotels and other tourist-oriented joint enterprises are being completed with European and Canadian partners.

Americans visiting Cuba find little or no animosity and the general consensus is that the U. S. trade embargo will soon be resolved. More tourism, certainly. But it could also mean new American Chevrolets, Fords and Cadillac’s will soon be joining their ancient relatives on the bustling streets of Havana and Santiago.

Getting there the Cuban way

Non-car owning Cubans and tourists who choose not to hire expensive rental cars (antique cars are also available) have various options for getting around.

Tourists seldom chance it, but several hundred Cubans regularly line up to board the so-called camels or camellos (named for their humped, camel-like shape). They are 300-passenger vehicles pulled by 18-wheeler semi tractor-trailers.

On board the large buses, temperatures are often hot. Many riders find standing room only. Passengers sometimes complain about the over-crowding. There’s also the threat of occasional pickpockets, even though Cuba has very little crime. The price is right, however, at 10 centimos, exact change.

For the better-heeled (read tourist) visitor, there are romantic horse-drawn carriages. Perhaps even more common are the ciclo-taxis, which are bicycle rickshaws. I took a trip of about four miles in one such vehicle, with the driver cheerfully singing the entire time. The cost was only $5. Feeling guilty, I tipped him $5.

Another option is the motor scooter-powered “Coco” taxis, two-passenger, yellow-colored vehicles. Their name comes from their shape – like half a coconut.

There are also motorcycles, many of them Russian Ural models with sidecars. Entire families are often seen clinging to them. No one seems to wear a helmet.

Revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose image can be found everywhere here, was a motorcycle fan. He drove a Harley-Davidson. Similar to cars, there’s a ban on importing American motorcycles, but there are upwards of 200 Harley-Davidson riders in Cuba, according to the Internet website Hogs Over Havana.

Most Cubans, however, get around by bicycle. In the early 1990s, when the Russian empire as well as its cars began to fall apart, Castro ordered a million bicycles from China. Many Cubans bought bicycles, paying $6 down and the rest on a monthly installment plan�a sign that capitalism exists here despite the revolution.