Sunday, July 22, 2012

In Communist Cuba, Car Love Runs Deep out of Necessity

In Communist Cuba, Car Love Runs Deep out of Necessity
Zac Estrada

Cuba is about more than just old cars, but the island nation's
adversarial history makes car ownership unique from almost any other
place in the world. If you have a car in Cuba, you probably have an old car.

One humid night in Havana, I met the second owner of a 1937 Pontiac with
a three-speed manual, who boasted of its stock condition. His father was
the first owner. There were some niggles with the car — he had to use a
screwdriver to open the trunk lid and a wire to wiggle the glove box lock.

Other than the addition of turn signals cleverly mounted on the rear
parcel shelf and an electrical upgrade from a 6 volts to 12 (because
12-volt alternators are all you can get now), the car was fundamentally
as it was in 1937. No custom paint or big wheels.

He loves the car and will probably hand it down to someone else when he
no longer has a use for it. And that's the feeling shared by a lot of
Cubans. A car isn't a disposable good like it is to most Americans –
it's essential to your life and you make it work as long as possible.

I spent a month in Havana earlier this year for a photography course
through Northeastern University, as part of the university's Dialogues
of Civilizations program. Twenty-three of us, along with two awesome TAs
and two also awesome professors, studied Cuban culture and learned about
a place few Americans get to travel. Some people took a lot of pictures
of fruit. I honed my very basic photo skills by taking pictures of cars
– a lot of pictures of cars. These are my observations about the cars in
Cuba and Cubans with their cars.

The trade restrictions imposed for the last five decades by the US have
pretty much left Cuba stuck in 1959 as far as cars are concerned. But
there are a lot of cars from the Soviet era, aging Russian things that
got distributed decades ago. But as exporting to Cuba has been
increasing slowly, the last 10 years or so have brought waves of 1980s
and 1990s European cars and some brand new Chinese and Korean ones. Any
of those are highly prized possessions among Cubans.

On my first cab ride in the city, the driver's day job was as a doctor.
But because he makes so little practicing medicine, he moonlights
driving a taxi (and ripping off Americans) to support his family. His
Lada, complete with pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview
mirror, is crucial to his livelihood.

That's the reason cars – ones that would have been crushed in the States
years ago – are mended over and over again in Cuba. Watching a taxi
driver under the front of his Lada while his passengers stand on the
side of the road in their bathing suits. New parts from the few
companies with any presence here – Fiat, Peugeot-Citroen, Mercedes-Benz,
for example – are expensive and likely only for the newest models.

While Havana is swarming with as many cars as large flying insects,
four-wheeled transport is still out of reach for working families making
about $20 a month – if they're lucky. Gas costs around $4 a gallon, and
that's for 83 octane. Availability of a car in Cuba is tricky. Even
though there's a Citroen showroom and a Fiat parts department, few can
afford to splurge on a shiny new C4.

Guillermo Ramirez Malberti is an artist with a fascination for Cuba's
car culture. He paints them, creates art from old radiators and Peugeot
chassis and organizes old American ones in the shape of the country.
It's estimated there are more than 50,000 pre-1960 American cars, most
still gleaming with chrome, roaming the country. And it's those that
capture the most attention.

"Up until 2002, it was only American and Soviet cars," Malberti said in
English that was better than my Spanish. "There is a strong sense of
symbolism with the American cars."

But while it may look like a '56 Oldsmobile, things are probably not
what they seem underneath. Gas hungry V8s have long been ditched for
Fiat four-cylinders. Some are even using differentials and greasy bits
from old Land Rovers. And others are running on propane gas tanks in the
trunk, because that's cheaper than gasoline.

"Cubans get very creative with ways to fix their cars themselves,"
Malberti said as he showed me how people squeeze guava and banana pieces
to stop up a leaky radiator.

Malberti said there are no new parts for the old cars, which is why
seats sometimes come from Volvos and halogen lights are swapped for
makeshift ones with fluorescent bulbs.

Now Cubans are doing everything they can to keep post-1960 cars on the
road. The amount of European cars from the '80s and '90s still chugging
along is pretty surprising. 205s are everywhere, as are 405s that would
be considered an oddity in the US, even most of Europe. Cuba must be
where all of the remaining Fiat Tempras in the world live. Squeezing as
many people into a Fiat Cinquecento as possible looks like a national
sport rivaled only by baseball. I even spotted two Saab 96s running
quieter than some of the Renaults used as taxis.

Korean cars are in abundance, too. Accent taxis and Rio and Sonata
rentals are hugely popular. But Ladas rein supreme. Anything with the
mechanical simplicity of a mango and the toughness of a coconut is bound
to do well in a city where potholes connected by smoother strips of
pavement are called roads (in the country, it's cobblestones connecting
those potholes).

When I saw a Mark 2 Volkswagen Golf sputtering and smoking along the
Malecòn, the first thought wasn't that this country has some really
sketchy cars. I thought of how long ago that car would have been turned
into a screen door after being crushed in an American scrapyard. The
fact Cubans think of so many different ways to keep these old things
running proves they love their cars more than most people.

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