fb-pixel

Fifty years have passed since the United States last had an embassy in Havana, and yet somehow people seem to be driving the same cars.

Cuba’s streets are studded with classic American cars — vintage Chevy Bel Airs and long-forgotten Studebakers. It’s not about nostalgia, though. Between the US embargo and the local restrictions on car purchases, Cubans have few alternatives.

For that to change — and for more Cubans to finally experience the joys of power steering — the current thaw in US-Cuban relations will have to generate much broader changes in the Cuban economy and a more thorough reassessment of the US embargo.

Advertisement



Why does Cuba have so many classic cars?

A host of historical forces combined to give Cuba its unique car culture. In the years before Castro took power, Cuba had a fairly strong urban middle class — with a passion for American cars.

But when the Communist Party gained control in 1959, it cut off all US auto imports, leaving Cubans with little choice but to keep their cars running any way they could.

And that’s exactly what Cubans have done. The classic cars you see on the streets of Havana today aren’t charming throwbacks to a bygone age. They are the very same vehicles that traversed the city before the Cuban revolution.

How are these cars still running?

What makes the survival of these classic cars especially remarkable is that thanks to the US embargo, Cubans couldn’t get spare parts.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the United States placed severe restrictions on virtually all economic activity between the two countries. The Cuban government estimates that this embargo costs the island $685 million annually, or about three months salary for every Cuban.

The embargo has kept US auto makers from selling replacement parts to Cuban mechanics, with the result that many of the classic American cars on Cuba’s streets are actually equipped with German or Japanese diesel engines and held together with jerry-rigged parts.

Advertisement



Can’t Cubans buy cars from other place?

The Communist Party in Cuba has restricted all manner of economic activity, and car purchases are no exception. For years, only the most well-connected Cubans were allowed to buy new cars, and they were largely limited to Soviet imports.

As of 2007 — the most recent data available — only about two of every 100 Cubans owned a car. In the nearby Dominican Republic there were six cars for every 100 people. In the United States, it was 45.

Passenger cars per 100 people
Cuba
2
Dominican Republic
6
Jamaica
14
Mexico
18
United States
45
SOURCE: World Bank

Since 2011, however, Cuba has been relaxing its laws and implementing reforms that make it easier for folks to buy and sell automobiles. But so far there’s little evidence of a surge in car ownership.

Will the new embassy bring big changes?

A lot has happened since Obama announced that he was restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Travel to the island has become much easier, Cuba has been scrubbed from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, and there’s been an exchange of high-level prisoners.

Nonetheless, the US embargo remains largely in place, and restrictions on business activity abound. Relaxing these sanctions could have a profound impact on the Cuban economy — including the car market— but for now congressional leaders don’t seem interested. And it’s not clear how much latitude President Obama’s has to act unilaterally.

When will Cubans start driving modern cars?

Leaving aside the embargo and the lingering restrictions on the island’s car market, there’s a more basic reason Cubans aren’t purchasing modern cars: They can’t afford to.

Advertisement



Officially, at least, the average salary in Cuba is about $260 per year. That figure may be somewhat low, since it doesn’t include black market dealing nor account for the fact that the state already pays for basic services things like health care. But with annual salaries in the hundreds, rather than the thousands, it’s hard to imagine Cuba could sustain a really thriving market for new cars.

Still, if it were easier to bring cars into the country, at the very least you might see fewer Chevies from the ’50s and more used cars from the ’90s.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz