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.

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]

Cubans now allowed to stay in hotels

Things are changing in Cuba, but they are not changing fast enough.

New President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, has lifted a ban on Cuban citizens staying at hotels previously reserved for foreigners. They will now be charged in hard currency, like other guests. New rules will also allow Cubans to rent cars at state-run agencies for the first time.

On Friday, Cuba authorized its citizens to obtain mobile phones, which only foreigners and key officials in the Communist Government were previously allowed to have, The Chicago Tribune reports. A resolution signed by the Interior Commerce Ministry on March 21 also authorized the sale of computers, microwaves and DVD players, items which had only been sold to companies and foreigners. Of course, many people in Cuba are too poor to benefit from any of this.

As The Economist pointed out, if things keep going this way, by 2050 Cubans might be allowed satellite television.

Photo: localsurfer, Flickr

Future Travel to Cuba Possibly Easier

Ever since I saw the Buena Vista Social Club, I was sold on getting to Cuba. It wasn’t just about wanting to watch tiny old woman roll fat cigars anymore or about chilling on some cool Cuban coastline with a cocktail anymore. That movie made me what to explore the bottomless depths of the music scene. Or should I say musicia? The songs, the dance, the history and the lives of the people swaying to Omara Portuondo’s “Gracias a la Vida” are all the things I’d love to come across during a two-week long trip.

Anyhow, before I get too wrapped up in my own sweet dreams of traveling to Cuba, I wanted to point the attention of other travelers longing to visit the only Communist country in the Western hemisphere to this plug found on World Hum. They site a couple of articles across the web that suggest travel to Cuba could one day become legal and easier for you and me. Now don’t go about clicking your heels yet. There is only a glimmer of hope as of now with factors like Fidel missing his big 80th birthday bash and his brother Raul’s call for open talks with the U.S. over the weekend. So yes, we probably still have to wait until Fidel bites the dust and Raul tells our prez that the American public is happily welcomed to visit Cuba. Of course Bush will probably have to lift sanctions from 1962 when the two countries became unfriendly towards one another and with his schedule I am sure that could take awhile if it were strongly being considered. For all of us dying to go, we can only hope and for more reasons than our own selfish ones.