The government is encouraging Cubans to get rid of their old Buicks and Packards for new cars (albeit with hefty import tariffs that put the price of a Peugeot 206 at well over £50,000), but the automotive dinosaurs have long been a key attraction in Cuba, and the nation is increasingly reliant on tourist dollars to support its economy.
The government has officially recognised the importance of classic cars to Cuba’s tourist draw and has permitted a slimmed-down fleet to remain. In a telling sign of the changes being made to Cuba’s economy and society in recent years, the owners of the surviving classics are now permitted to become self-employed as tourist taxis and legally earn money ferrying tourists (or Cuban wedding parties) around Havana. Previously nearly all the American cars were state-owned and any fares were collected by the government for redistribution.
With a personal income, owners can now lavish a little more care and attention on their cars and many of these previously-shabby cars have received new paint and chrome to make them more attractive to tourists. However, getting parts and spares will remain difficult – many of the cars have had their big Detroit V8s replaced by Soviet-era car or truck engines and there remains a thriving backstreet garage sector in Cuba dedicated to fabricating new parts and coming up with increasingly ingenious ways of keeping these 50-plus year old cars on the road.
There is, as yet, no indication what will happen to the classics that are not permitted to remain as tourist vehicles. It is hoped that Cuba’s gradually relaxing trade restrictions will allow the cars to be exported into the hands of enthusiasts (many are examples of models that are all but extinct outside Cuba) but while the United States maintains its own strict trade embargo on the island the main market for these cars will remain closed.