Cuba’s Classic Cars: Catch Them While You Can

There are few places in the world where you can find modern Toyotas sharing the streets with Model T’s, and Cuba is one of them. The country’s abundance of classic cars may be the result of historic trade restrictions, but it’s also a key element of Cuba’s romantic, stuck-in-time ambience.

Why does Cuba boast so many classic cars? Until last October, Cuban residents were forbidden from buying and selling vehicles without the government’s permission. Only automobiles purchased before the 1959 Cuban Revolution could be freely traded, forcing car owners to use creativity and craftiness to make their existing vehicles last. By outfitting their old cars with replacement engines, fixtures, lining and paint, many have been able to significantly extend the lives of their vehicles, instead of sending them to the junkyard as we’re so quick to do in the Western world. In fact, most cars you’ll find on the street resemble a mash-up of different parts: a hubcap here, a dashboard there, topped off with a dash of house paint and often a Playboy bunny sticker.

%Gallery-159262%But last October, President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother, for those unversed in Cuban history) announced that Cuban residents would now be able to buy and sell cars “without any prior authorization from any entity,” for the first time in 50 years. According to Reuters, the new law is one of many reforms intended to put a greater emphasis on private initiative, a notion that has largely taken a backseat under Communist rule.

While the new law is a definite step forward for Cuban society, it does mean that owners of classic cars will be less motivated to maintain their vehicles, now that they have the freedom to trade up for new ones. But during a recent trip, the new law hadn’t seemed to have made much of an impact – yet. The streets of central Havana were filled with propped-up hoods and self-taught mechanics, and on the Bay of Pigs was parked a perfectly preserved 1929 Ford Model T, at our service. “Original engine,” our driver boasted, beaming.

Still, change is in the air, and the chance to ogle beautifully preserved classic cars may not exist for much longer.

Dive Communist plane off the coast of Bulgaria

Fish are pretty and shipwrecks are cool to explore, but how would you like to dive a

Communist airplane in the Black Sea? A 1971 Soviet-made Tupolev-154 was submerged this week off the coast of Bulgaria to create an artificial reef for SCUBA divers. Orlin Tsanev, chairman of Black Sea Dive Odesos association, told Reuters: “The submerging of the plane aims to make it an attraction and (a place) for training divers.”

Made for former Bulgarian Communist ruler Todor Zhivkov, the plane’s engines and interior were removed and the body of the aircraft is now 22 meters deep, making it the largest plane underwater in the world. The plane has been grounded since 1999 but once also carried Communist leaders such as Fidel Castro. Zhivkov’s private yacht was previously purchased for cruises on the Danube River.

The new dive site is located near the resort town of St. Konstantin and Elena, just north of Bulgaria’s “summer capital” of Varna. Read more about travel in Varna here.

Photo courtesy AP

Boston real estate developer begs for open Cuba

“Whatever motivated the original break in the U.S.-Cuban relations,” Boston real estate developer Don Chiofaro wrote in a Saturday op-ed piece in the Boston Herald, “it is incomprehensible to me why it continues.” I guess he’s unfamiliar with the Cuban missile crisis and the fear of communism that pervaded the United States while he was growing up.

The topic of Cuba has come up a few times on the pages of Gadling over the past few weeks – and for good reason. Foreign visitors do find the country to be safe, and many have a great time visiting there. Cigar smokers (among which I count myself) eagerly await the day that the borders open and all those illicit Montecristos become legit. More than 45 years have past since the embargo was implemented, and a lot has changed. But, we need to be a tad realistic about the situation.

Cuba is still plagued by an abysmal human rights record, and many Cuban-Americans remember this aspect of their earlier lives without a shred of fondness. The company is ruled not by the vote of the people (even indirectly, as democracy functions up here) but by a single voice that mixes dictatorship with signs of royalty – just note that Fidel Castro turned control of the country over to his brother, Raul.

I’m not supporting the embargo, which I do suspect is anachronistic, but I do suggest that serious thought must be applied to U.S. policy. We need to do more than rely on the observations of a Boston businessman who took advantage of a boondoggle from friends in high places.

More realistically, Chiofaro is stinging from battles with Boston’s mayor, Tom Menino, and still hasn’t fully recovered from the near loss of his prized International Place towers back in 2004 and 2005. Or, the promise of land to be developed has probably caught his eye. Either way, he’s talking without thinking again, as he did when he referred to New York-based property development firm Tishman Speyer as a “gang of pirates.”

C’mon, Don. A builder should know the value of being “constructive.”

[Via Boston Herald]

Where did the commies go?

With September came the near fall of another Communitst leader, as Kim Jong Il, dictator over North Korea vanished from the limelight, joining his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro in the murky depths of unknown, fiercely hidden ailments.

The realist in me knows that both leaders are gravely ill. Kim Jong Il is said to have suffered a stroke early this month and hasn’t since been seen in public — even for state celebrations. In a similar light, Castro, who seems to have largely recovered from last year’s digestive problems, has resigned from his official state role in Cuban politics and now stays largely out of the public eye — no doubt because he is still an aging, fragile man.

But the conspiracy theorist in my has broader, more hopeful aspirations. I think about these two ailing leaders and wonder if perhaps, Communism has taken a toll on them over these last years and if maybe they’ve finally thrown in the towel and headed out to the beach for some good old vaycay.

I see Kim Jong and Fidel sitting on chaise lounges in the Indonesian Archipelago somewhere, bare feet up and drinking out of coconuts while looking out at the setting sun over a crisp, white beach. And Kim Jong looks over, out of his massive blue blockers at Fidel as the Cuban puts down his latest Harry Potter book to take a pull off his strawberry daiquiri. And Kim says, “Hey buddy… we gave it a shot.”

Wherever you two are, know this: I would take two old school Communist evil doers over one rambunctious Latin American president any day of the week. May your countries be open and peaceful and prosperous without you.

Adios, Fidel! Cuba won’t be the same without you (hopefully)

I cannot believe Fidel Castro actually resigned as the president of Cuba. I mean he is only 81 years old and still has plenty of energy to keep him going for at least 35 more years! Was I the only one who thought that Fidel was actually immortal? Well, we’ll still have to see about that.

In his written speech to the nation, Fidel said that he is not “fading into the sunset.” It’s just that his health is not allowing him to dedicate the energy necessary to run a country. I am sure running a totalitarian state takes a lot out of you. You know, it’s lonely at the top.

According to the NY Times, Fidel’s statement raised the possibility that little would change after Sunday, when the National Assembly meets to select a new head of state. Cuba will probably continue to be ruled in essence by two presidents, “with Raúl Castro (Fidel’s brother) on stage while Fidel Castro lurked in the wings.”

Reuters reported that Fidel’s resignation was unlikely to make the United States lift its trade embargo on Cuba. See, just more of the same old.