Sunday, December 6, 2009

Old Cars, Old Havana

Canadians are fascinated with old cars. I have a friend who bought an old Ford model, I think is a 1927 model T but I am not sure. Personally, I am not a big fan of old cars, probably because it remembers me Havana and its old vehicles rumbling down its bumpy streets.Old Cars, Old Havana

It is really funny that the first place I went with my friend was to an exhibition of “old cars” in Toronto. And every now and then, when my friend and I go to the annual cars exhibition, the first place he starts his wandering is in the old cars section, which I really hate.

The big empire of old cars is Havana. Probably the 90% of cars that populated the city, and the entire island, are old 40s and 50s American automobiles. Some of them are shining and in full splendour, and for sure their owners spend a bit more of their income improving their precious relic.

It is a relic, to have a car in Cuba is almost a relic that only government officials and a few lucky guys could be proud. Cuban authorities are reluctant to the introduction of the automobile industry. First at all, it is not an easy business to pay for a gas. Second, many of those cars don’t have spare parts for any kind of reparations. Third, the government doesn’t want the private worldwide automobile industry in Cuba. You have to remember, Cuba is a monolithic estate in the hands of one ruler.

Since 1959, the imported goods, especially in that industry are very low, if any. The estate controls the gas stations and the importation of crude and refines oil, and Cuba is entirely dependable of fossil oil to generate electricity, which it is also property of the same estate. When it comes to priorities, the electric generation plants are in first place.

So, since 1959 the cars running in Cuba are the old cars. Many of the owners use them as taxis, legally or not, because everything in Cuba verges the legality. If you have a good eye you will notice that the car in the picture doesn’t have any visible board with the word “TAXI” on it. So, that is an illegal taxi running through one of the most crowded streets in Havana.

Some of those car’s owners pay a tip to the police to allow them to continue the ride. They tip also to go through the vehicle emission test: none of them could comply with the permitted levels of smoke emissions.

What Canadians and people travelling to Cuba don’t know is that the only authentic part of those cars is the chassis. For too long the engine and other elements had banished from them, and probably belong to an Old Russian car whose owner sold the parts, or probably a stolen vehicle which parts had been sold in the black market, or more commonly those spare parts had been stolen from the warehouses belonged to the government.

Anyway, all along Cuba you can see them running and rumbling the country, with the smoke covering the streets and their happy owners filling their pockets with their rides. The more glamorous are used in wedding ceremonies and parties, or even as rented cars for tourists with a bigger budget than the usual tourist who walk around the city.

With a public transportations system which is a disaster, the “almendrones” (big almods as Cubans called them) make their harvest riding up and down Havana, cities and small towns, and it is one (may be the only one) of the most successful private businesses in Cuba. They had been through everything: prohibition, high fines, expropriation and any kind of punishment. But they haven’t leave Cuba’s landscape.

It is probably one of the most well-known postcards of the Revolutionary Cuba: the picture of an old Chevrolet running through one of the streets of the Old Havana. For Canadians, they are a wonder. For Cubans, they are essentials.