Reports from Cuba: Cold War, Hot Motors

Camilo Ernesto Olivera Peidro in Translating Cuba:

Cold War, Hot Motors

Is the Cuban government considering declaring as “heritage assets” the classic cars that roam the streets?

Apropos of the imminent reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the US, General Motors (GM) recently expressed interest in exploring the possibility of doing business on the Island. Perhaps they see it as a promising market to sell parts and pieces for the cars that this automotive super-company produced during the 1940s and ‘50s.

As the old-timers tell it, US car manufacturers would test their products in Cuba, assessing whether the cars could withstand the harsh conditions of our tropical climate. American cars of such makes as Cadillac, Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Packard and Ford, rolled around – and continue rolling today – throughout the cities and towns of the Island.

Although the US and Cuba broke diplomatic relations in January, 1961, there had been no new vehicles or replacement parts entering the Island directly from the North for at least a year prior.

A half-century later, American-made autos are vital to the transport of passengers on the Island. In the US, they are “classic cars,” high-priced collectors’ items. In Cuba, they are called almendrones.*

Cold War vs. Hot Motors

Agustín Godínez bought his first car, a ’55 Chevrolet, in 1970. In 2002 he acquired a Dodge. For years, only those vehicles that arrived in Cuba before 1960 could be bought and sold via a transfer of ownership outside State control. That was until recently.

“The American cars have continued rolling along, thanks to the inventiveness of our mechanics and machinists,” Agustín explained. “These fellows retool parts harvested from other cars. American cars can function with parts from the Soviet Volga, made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They also work with parts from the Chaika (GAZ-M13), manufactured by the Russians in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which copied elements from the American autos Mercury, Chrysler and Dodge.”

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