Some time ago there was a story in one of the classic car magazines about an Aston Martin DB2/4 languishing in Havana among all the wonderful 50′s american cars.
As an intrepid ex-reporter I felt it was my duty to travel to Cuba and follow up this story. In reality I have had a burning desire to see Cuba for as long as I had wanted to own an Aston Martin.
At this point I have to admitÂ I failed miserably in my quest – no sign of an Aston anywhere – even showing a picture of a similar car to local drivers proved fruitless. Despite this disappointment there was no shortage of other wonderful vehicles to gawp at.
The ideaÂ was to post a few interesting photos here – starting with one of me looking veryÂ ‘foreign correspondent’ likeÂ in revolution Square under the huge portrait of Che Guevara. Sadly I had my camera, with over 300 photos of my trip,Â stolen atÂ Havana airport on the way home.Thank you Kurt for these pics
Cuba was a constant surprise. From areas of extreme deprivation and poverty, where people still have to queueÂ with their ration books
for rice and beans at the bodega, to an area of Havana that looked like Beverley Hills for the ‘affluent elite’. Proving that in any society the ‘effluent’ always floats to the top,
For many Cubans though, their old cars are a symbol of their hope – they keep them going as a way of thumbing their noses to the system, and in the belief that once the US sanctions are lifted, they will be able to bring many of them down off their axle stands and drive proudly down the Malacon. (I did worry at their naive expectations of a brave new world in which the US would be their friend and ally).
The willingness of many I met to talk politics – as long as there was no one near who could be a plain clothes policeman, was also quite unexpected. Both in China and communist Russia I had found people very nervous about talking openly about current regimes.
Despite the unhappiness with the government today, nearly everyone in Cuba has an affection for the revolution and the revolutionaries – and quite frankly Batista and his Mafia backers were prime candidates to be lined up and shot. Che Guevara still enjoys real admiration and affection – but Fidel almost seemed like two people, as a revolutionary, great – after 50 odd years in power, the gilt was definitely wearing thin.
One young woman told me proudly that Cuba had the best medical system in the world “Our life span is longer than any other third world nation – 75 years for men, 78 for women… and 120 for presidents.”
WeÂ also keptÂ hearing howÂ the ‘government’ owned everything – unlike in China, where the ‘people’ own everything. In fact i was surprised that there is still much private ownership in Cuba – many people own their own homes – although they are unable to sell them, and have a system of house-swapping to gain more space/location.
Likewise the cars. Those with blue plates are government owned, red plates are hire cars, black diplomatic and yellow for privately owned. I had hoped to cadge a ride in one of the old bangers – but it is illegal for private owners to give tourists a ride, and there is a government owned fleet of very well preserved and maintained 50′s americana that one can hire – sadly I just didn’t get the time.
They were nor all American cars either – I saw an old Sunbeam, a Jaguar of some description, a Lotus (possibly Elite) lots of UK Fords and Austins of the 50′s, a couple of Land Rovers, old Mercedes, an Afla Spyder, and glimpsed through an open doorway, an old Rolls Royce.
Along with their excellentÂ health serviceÂ - 53 doctors toÂ 10,000 people (third highest per capita in the world), Cubans are also very well educated, there are schools in every villlage and hamlet, seven universitiesÂ and two higher institutes. An engineer told me that his education was the most valuable thing he had received from the revolution – but it had come at a cost. During their school years children are expected to spend a month in the country. Not on holiday, but working in the cane fields or tobacco plantations. He had had to pick tobacco leaves while the girlsÂ sorted them for drying.Â “Now I see the price of our cigars,” he said, “I realise I paid for my education may times over.”
We went round a tobacco farm and a cigar factory (the only place in Cuba where people are paid according to the amount they produce) and can attest to the hard graft required.
Politics could not keep my attention for long – the impressive old russian trucks that carry the tobacco and sugar cane to the factory were just as interesting as the cars in Havana – and when the drivers recognised a fellow petrol head with a hip flask of local rum theyÂ were more than happy to chat.(just for the record – I was not encouraging them to drink and drive, they had finished their shift and were waiting for a bus to take them home). One driver complained that he drove a government lorry, carrying government owned sugar cane, using government owned fuel – yet he still needed to get a government approved voucher to take to the government owned petrol station and fill his government owned lorry with government owned petrol….. “Yah,” he spat, “I would rather be in prison in England than a driver in Cuba.”
Apparantly, before the fall of communism in Russia,Â Cuba had a steady supply of Ladas and lorries from the USSR – accompanied by crates of spare parts. But since 1991 they have had to rely on China and South America for a trickle of automotive parts – all of which are extortionately expensive.
For the shiney new european and japanese cars (Fiats, Mercedes, Mitsubishis) a new rear lens cover is the equivalent of a whole new Lada engine.
Cubas newest ally is of course Venezuala -Â a recent agreement between the two countries may help improve Cuba’s crumbling transport system, and new chinese buses are already beginning to replace the aged and much loathed ‘Camellos’.
As well as vehicular traffic, I was also fascinated by the 60 year old russian Antanov biplane that flew over us one day – this is apparantly an air taxi, and next time we visit Cuba I am definitely goingÂ in that.Â
The population in Cuba is about 11 million – one wag said that this was made up of 8 million artists, 2 million policemen and 1 million who actually worked to keep the country going. The official unemployment statistic is 1.9 million, but my English ex-pat friend in Havana suggested this was closer to 19 million – “see all those people out on the streets? we call them the night-shift.”
I did wonder where all the people driving around in their nostalgia-on-wheels got the money for the fuel, but in my all too brief visitÂ I learned that Cubans are resourceful, optimistic, and certainly the ones I met, very hard working.
I am hoping to get a few photos from some of the friends we made on the trip, and if so will post one or two here. I have already replaced the camera (ebay again). There should be a great one of our driver changing a tyre on the motorway – I have never seen such a fundementally shredded tyre in my life.
Next year we are planning a trip to Mexico, and have decided that Cuba deserves a visit on the way back – this time with two cameras chained to our wrists.