For The Culture

Cuba's Classic Cars

Since 1950, one of the most mysterious island nations in the world to those of us in America has laid 90 miles off of the coast of Florida, yet has been so forbidden to us in the United States that until recently, no one went there. It was against the law. The political battles of the 1950's and 1960's are still haunting us. What is the mysterious island? That strange and mysterious land is Cuba.

Fidel Castro ruled that nation with an iron fist, joining forces with the Soviets in Russia, and hating America and our capitalism. It was so bad that many people each year took to the seas to flee, and quite regularly refugees washed up on the shores of America in boats or on overloaded rafts, much like the Haitians do. Refugees became visitors, and visitors became citizens and a new culture was born here. That phenomenon is the reason that South Florida is known for its Cuban population and the reason that Little Havana has become an integral part of Miami. That's why Salsa music and spicy Caribbean food have become staples in Florida and across the country.

But what are the people of Cuba like? What is it like to live in today's world there? Do they all hate Americans? Do they all wish to live here? What are they really like? Luckily for the ardent traveler, regulations have become greatly relaxed in recent years with Castro's health fading, and now is the time for we Americans to take a walk on the wild side and see what it's really like in Cuba.

One of the things that you will notice in Havana or Habana is the contrasts. They have Modern items, but they aren't American. There are still a lot of simple block buildings that aren't in the greatest of shape that are from the high Soviet era. You will also see the older colonial style buildings from before 1900. It's an interesting mix of old, somewhat new, and new. What you're actually seeing are people who are going to make a life no matter what. They've been through a lot, these Cubans, but they still have their spirit.

What you find is amazing. There's so much to see and do, and there's so many people to meet. You can visit old town, see the fort; check out the beaches and the coast lines, shop til you drop, and dance the night away. It's a wonderful atmosphere with friendly locals who want to share their lives and lifestyles with you.

This brings me to the adventure. No matter what deals Castro made with the Soviets or what rebel cells led by Che Guevara may have been doing back in the 1950's, the Cubans were not having successful peace talks with the U.S. By 1962 the U.S. had had enough. No more Soviet missiles, no more Bay of Pigs. We were done. So, the U.S. put a trade embargo on Cuba and the flow of American products being shipped to Cuba came to a screeching halt.

50 years later, this has made a fabulous tourist attraction. Cuba is full of American cars, but not new ones. Everywhere you go, you will see old fashioned American cars. Taxis, rentals, and so many other cars are old and still on the road. Walking down the street you'll see a ton of Chevy Bel Airs, various Fords, Chryslers, and other Chevrolets. There are car clubs that will let you come and visit and organized cruises that you can get in on. Lest we forget, most taxis are 1950's American cars.

If you're lucky, you'll meet an owner that will tell you the story of their car. As you can imagine, these are not treated as collectible cars. These cars are transportation and family businesses. They get handed down from generation to generation like jewelry. These cars are also 50 plus years old. The embargo didn't stop with the import of the actual cars. It included parts as well. The Cubans have been extremely creative in finding ways to keep 50 year old cars running. It's amazing to hear the stories of car repair. Here's one. The axle broke on a car. The person couldn't find a used one, so they made it out of a piece of pipe and some cement. The stories are incredible, and the devotion to these old cars is amazing. They treat them like one of the family. Some of them are pristine, and some of them are not, but they keep on going. There are junkyards all over that maintain all the parts that they can to help out the owners, but things are going to run out eventually. It's not beyond the stretch of the imagination that down the road, there will be no more of these cars on the road, because there will be no more parts to fix them. Then we will be left with the old Ladas hanging around.

So, no matter what you do when you're in Cuba, from touring a cigar factory to visiting an old abandoned sugar plantation, to Salsa dancing the night away, take time to check out the cars. The Cuban folks will be very happy to take you on a ride and tell you their stories. It's an ambiance that you really can't experience anywhere else in the world short of a car show. This is a catch it while you can, because it could go away soon. With regulations easing and political shift in the air, this unique trait could leave Cuba forever. Remember, we love to see all the old cars, but the Cubans would love to own something new. They've labored for decades to keep these cars on the road because they need them. They hand them down to their children, because their children will need them. A new car would be a huge life changing experience for a lot of Cubans, so check it out while there's still time to enjoy such a nostalgic atmosphere, and enjoy a ride on the old side.