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.

Cuba Libre: The U.S.-Cuba trade embargo

It was five years ago exactly that Cuba became for me a possible travel destination. My colleague Lora suggested we spend our spring break there and I thought it was a pretty novel idea. I had been to Vietnam the year before during spring break, and learned far more by going there than schooling or Miss Saigon could ever teach me.

At the time, I knew next to nothing about Cuba. Even if you mentioned the Bay of Pigs, which I had studied over ten years ago in high school, I would only be able to relate it to Kennedy and Castro, but I couldn’t remember the outcome of this event nor the repercussions it had on U.S. – Cuban relations. What better way to learn about a nation than get there, live, and breathe it. I’m a firm believer in experiencing a place and its history and culture by going there, not by reading about it. I knew then that Cuba for me would become a reality.
So it was that the plan to travel to Cuba had been hatched, yet it was only last month that I finally followed through and traveled to Castro country. But traveling to Cuba involves far more preparation, planning, and forethought than an ordinary trip. That’s because of one, in my opinion very antiquated, thing: the embargo. The U.S. – Cuba trade embargo is one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard of. While citizens from other countries, namely Canada, Spain, Germany, and Italy, enjoy vacationing in Cuba, Americans can’t. Well, technically, they can travel there, but once they’re in Cuba, the embargo dictates that Americans cannot spend money there. The reason: the U.S. does not condone the Cuban socialist/communist regime led by Fidel and now upheld by his brother Raúl.

If Americans are caught spending money in Cuba, they could pay a hefty fine (upwards of $10,000) or be put in jail. For 50 years now, Americans have ignored the embargo and traveled to Cuba anyways. Reports say that over 200,000 Americans travel to Cuba every year, and this number continues to increase. One of Cuba’s most important industries is tourism, so they continue to grant Americans travel visas upon arrival (how they do this I will explain in a later post). While some Americans paid the price when caught, most returned home undetected by traveling through Mexico or Canada. That is until the Bush administration (in the last decade), when cases of fines or imprisonment increased exponentially.

Now that Obama is in office, there is much talk about easing travel restrictions to Cuba. Already, a bill has been passed to allow Cuban-Americans to return to their homeland once a year, but American tourists still have to wait, and word is that it may still be a long time before the embargo is completely lifted.

There is also, of course, the “legal” way to travel to Cuba. To do that, you must get a “license” (not a visa) through the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Americans who successfully procure a license to travel to Cuba do so by getting a letter of permission by their employer or school. Therefore, licenses are given to those who are traveling to Cuba for educational or business purposes.

Adding to the difficulty of traveling to Cuba is safety and money. Those who travel sans license cannot be covered by travel insurance. This is, thankfully, not too much of an issue as Cuba has one of the best health programs in the world, so if something did befall you, you could still receive care, but you would have to pay the fees in cash. Still, you can’t be too much of a hedonist and go leaping out of planes or breaking bones.

Cuba is a very safe place to travel – even at night, but if your American passport gets stolen or lost, there’s also no embassy to go running to. If you are in such a pinch, however, the much-guarded U.S. Special Interests building in Havana is your only saving grace, but it is not an acting embassy and will therefore look unfavorably at your carelessness – especially if you’re there “illegally” as a tourist.

Money is a whole other issue too. Up until last year, the U.S. dollar was a useless currency in Cuba, but it is now accepted at an unfavorable exchange rate. In addition, U.S.-issued bank and credit cards continue to be rejected by Cuban banks and businesses. Because you shouldn’t be spending loads of money in Cuba, it’s also not a good idea to buy tons of goods (like cigars) either.

… The embargo, safety, and money matters aside, Lora and I decided to go for it. While it still remains a risk to travel Cuba, I for one wanted to experience a place that is largely untouched by America. There are very few places in the world that has so publicly dismissed America’s capitalistic way of life. Based on accounts from people who’d been there recently, I heard that traveling to Cuba is a most unique cultural experience yet also eye-opening socially and politically. Having been to socio-politically different countries such as China and Myanmar, I felt ready for whatever came my way, but having just returned from my two-week trip to Cuba, I can safely say that nothing could prepare me for such an intense culture shock. Cuba, for certain, is one of the most special places I have been to, and I hope this week’s Cuba Libre posts can express why.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE.