By: CCW Sebastian Smiedt.
Cuba is exciting and full of contrasts, beautiful and dreary at the same time, but above all this country is one thing: colourful. Colours determine the cities, the clothes, the landscape – and the streets. And the cars on Cuban roads are legendary. And like in no other country, classic vehicles are a crucial and also a colourful part of the overall picture.
The colourful classics are to be found on numerous souvenirs, every tourist captures at least one of the old cars and classic car tours are a flourishing branch of business. Cuba is special, in many parts of the country time seems to have frozen. Cultural bloom, mundane times, dictatorship, revolution, embargo and finally socialism for almost 60 years have created a unique microcosm on this Caribbean island. The morbid charm of a world that is actually past, but still existing, makes is key part of the attraction for the majority of tourists. For the people of Cuba, it is more often a bitter reality.
You feel like a time traveller when arriving in Cuba: All vehicles, except for the taxi, are from the eighties, most of these much older. American street cruisers like Chevrolets and Cadillacs of the fifties travel alongside Russian Lada and Moskwitsch, supplemented by one or another former East-German Wartburg. Four decades of automobile history, West and East, political opposites, are united in Cuba peacefully side by side. What looks like a classic car event is Cuban everyday life.
What looks like a rolling open-air museum from a tourist perspective is a result of Fidel Castro’s restrictive politics. The revolution and communist takeover in 1959 is followed by the abolition of many relations with western countries and by a trade blockade by the USA. Castro largely forbade the free car trade. The new cars imported into Cuba after 1959 were only used by the state as “bonuses” to government officials or doctors, and models from behind the Iron Curtain were introduced, such as Lada and Moskwitsch, later also from China. But also a few Western European models, among these some from Germany and France, found their way to the island, for example, Volkswagen de México delivered Beetles, Jettas and Golfs (predominantly as taxis) to Cuba, and Asian brands have grown considerably over the last decades.
Private trade with vehicles from year 1959 was prohibited in Cuba until 2012. This explains why particularly many American classics of the 1940s and 1950s are on the streets. They are kept alive at an extensive effort – between 40,000 and 50,000 of these vehicles are still to be found on Cuba’s streets. Some of the cars look like taken from a museum, others resemble moving sculptures. Without creative drivers and good networks, the vehicles in socialist Cuba could not be kept alive. And not without financial support from family members abroad. Cars are real luxury in Cuba. In 2014, there were only 21 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 531 in Germany. For many, the expensive classics are also the main source of income for the whole family:
The Cuban road image has been tapering – slowly. Since 2014 there are also new cars on the free market. However, the new car prices are several times the prices in Europe or the USA – and a new car remains pure utopia for most Cubans. The classics will continue to shape Cuba’s image.