Viva Automobility! Cuba’s Love Affair with the Car.

Cuba has been called the world’s largest antique car museum. To those who visit Cuba, it is nearly impossible to ignore the pre-1960s American-made cars that swoosh through the...

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Cuba has been called the world’s largest antique car museum. To those who visit Cuba, it is nearly impossible to ignore the pre-1960s American-made cars that swoosh through the roads daily. The vintage cars from Ford, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Chrystler as well as long-forgotten DeSotos, Nashs, Packards, Studebakers, and Edsels are common on Cuban roads, especially in Havana. As the volume of international tourists increases, and articles in popular press about the Island become more prevalent, awareness of this assembly of old American cars continues to grow. Largely due to the anti-American sentiment that reverberates throughout Cuba, many tourists and researchers have questioned the existence of American classics here, but few visitors understand the lengths to which Cubans go to keep these classic cars running.  The American automobile in Cuba is symbolic of the nation’s turbulent history over the past 70 years; despite the age of many Cuban cars, Cubans still view the automobile as a symbol of status, freedom and nationalism.

With the relatively low income of many Cuban people, many wonder why they spend so much time and energy on these automobiles. Some have argued that having a car is an essential aspect of daily life in Cuba. Growing financial constraints as well as a diminishing supply of oil on the island led to severe delays in public transportation services. Chronic late arrivals, overcrowding, and cancellation of routes became the norm in Havana. Once the ideal of freedom as it related to automobility was internalized, the value of automobiles increased. Within the limits of fuel supply and cost, full ownership of a car, even an old one, gave citizens the luxury and flexibility of scheduling their own trips to work, shopping, or running errands. Thus, households with a functioning automobile had a slightly higher quality-of-life than their car-less neighbors. While cars are considered essential in Cuban society because they give Cubans much needed freedom to make their own schedules, many also view cars as a symbol of status. Cuba is a fairly poor country and only those who can afford to have a car have that luxury. Not only are those with American classics considered to be rich, they are also considered to be cool, sexy, and fun. Cubans are enchanted with cars in the same way that Americans are, if not more so. This unifying similarity is fascinating, especially considering the tattered and complex relationship between the two countries.

Through years of adaptation and innovation to preserve the American classics, the American automobile has become a beloved Cuban symbol. Vintage cars have become a metaphor for dealing with the system imposed on Cuba by the Revolution with it’s shortages, limited solutions, and unfulfilled promises. Furthermore the automobile serves as a symbol of freedom, status, and nationality. Rene de la Nuez, an artist and caricaturist, writes about the Cuban symbolism in American cars. He articulates, “these old American cars, with their grafted parts and innovative adaptations defy the passage of time in order to survive and triumph … in the same way Cubans must invent life daily in order to survive, but with an extraordinary energy that is unique to this nation.” Many have associated the concept of automobility strictly to the United States. It is evident that the sensationalism surrounding the automobile is not uniquely American but rather a global phenomenon.

Dana Miller is a student at the University of Vermont studying environmental health and sociology.

Student Author: Dana Miller

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams.

Sources: 

Grant, W. (2015). “The Cars of the Cuban Trade Embargo” BBC. BBC. Havana.

Hernandez, A. (2014). “Cars to Cuba? It’s Complicated” Automotive News. Automotive News.

Larsen, R. (2014). A Short History of Cars in Cuba. Virginia Quarterly Review, 90(2)  24-25.

McElroy, J. (2001). American classics in Cuba. Ward’s Auto World, 37(5), 21.

Seiler, C. (2008). Republic of Drivers: A Cultural of Automobility in America. University of Chicago.

Smith, Jeffrey S., Charles O. Collins, and Jennine Pettit. (2013). “Cacharros: the persistence of vintage automobiles in Cuba. Focus on Geography.

Suddath, C. (2009). “U.S. Cuba Relations” Time Magazine. Time Inc.

Valiente, L. (2015). “Easing the Cuban Embargo: Automotive Industry Unlikely to Realize any Immediate Benefit” Foley & Larder LLP.

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