Cuban drivers are now free to purchase cars after the government passed a law reducing restrictions last December, although steep prices mean fewer than 100 cars have been sold since January.
This move is just the latest of several moves by the government to introduce more free market ideas and allowances into the communist country.
The average price of a new car in Cuba sits around $23,000 dollars, but when monthly salaries average $20, even for professions like doctors, few can afford the price of a new vehicle.
A Kia Rio hatchback, which starts at $13,900 in the US, costs $42,000 in Cuba. Of course owning a car means eventually having to fix the car, and modern vehicles are far more advanced and complicated than the yank tanks – pre-revolution cars – that Cuba is famous for.
Many of these yank tanks are fitted with Soviet-era technology that citizens have made work since parts for these cars became unavailable after the start of the US embargo. In the years following the Cuban revolution, the government seized any vehicle that was not purchased and registered before 1959. It is estimated that around 60,000 of these pre-revolution cars, mostly American made, are still on the roads today.
Because buying a car is so expensive, Cubans will go to great lengths to keep their cars in running order. No replacement parts have been widely available since the embargo, although there is a market for parts smuggled into the country. Old cars are left to sit, waiting for the day they are either repaired or parted out in an effort to save other cars.
The government still controls all new car sales, owning all 11 can and motorcycle dealerships in the country. They say that 75 percent of the income from these car sales is going to fund public transportation in cities like Havana. The public transit in the country is in need of a heavy refresh, with many busses and taxis dating back decades.
Used cars are also subject to high prices. Many of these cars are former taxi and rental vehicles that come can have well over 100,000 miles on the odometer and still cost tens of thousands. A result of the new laws was an increase in the price of used cars. One of the most important points of the new law is the allowance of used car sales between private citizens. Previously, permission from the government was required even for transactions between private citizens. Permits were handed out and traded as a commodity on their own.
In the years following the revolution, most of the new cars imported to Cuba came from the Soviet Union. These cars were mainly used for government, taxi and rental services with very few reaching public hands.
Cuba’s unique situation, being caught with a vast number of cars but no convenient way to maintain them, has led to a unique car culture. Cuban streets are filled with a mixture of Soviet Era Ladas and Chevrolet, Ford and Packards from the 1950s. Fidel Castro famously road in an Oldsmobile to the Bay of Pigs.
There are many car clubs and organizations in Cuba, each with their own flavor of enthusiast. Alex Cruz Rangel is a member of Amigos de Fangio or Friends of Fangio, one such group. Rangel said, “The fact is that we are not a club, but rather a group of car enthusiasts that once, seven years ago, met inspired by the figure of Fangio.”
Juan Manuel Fangio, an Argentinian racing driver and considered by many to be the greatest Formula 1 driver who ever lived, was set to take part in the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958. He was kidnapped by revolutionaries and was unable to take part in the event. After his release, Fangio remained friends with his captors.
“So, in memory of these events was that we began to meet,” Rangel said. “But with over time it resulted in, as I said before, a group of classic and vintage cars enthusiasts.”
The idea of Havana filled with classic cars has become sort of iconic in the eyes of many non-Cubans. There are websites dedicated to profiling some of these cars, filled with photos, history and even the vehicles registration number.
Filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt is currently finishing up work on “Havana Motor Club.” The film focuses on the efforts of several drivers to put together the first official race since the Cuban Revolution. The drivers, like most in Cuba, drive classic American cars.
Cubans remain hopeful that the prices of these cars will eventually drop. Inexpensive cars from China are some of the cheapest available to buy. Korean manufacturer Kia is also making a pretty big presence in the country. With more and more voices speaking up in support of lifting the US embargo, there is also the faint hope that not only can new American cars be sold in Cuba, but also that collectors and enthusiasts can share their parts as well as knowledge freely.