Driving Toward Cuba's Future

The cars in Cuba fascinate me. Where else in the world can one see a classic 1956 Oldsmobile, a shiny 1957 Chevy, and a 1970 VW bug alongside a new Audi and modern Chinese tour buses?

Our guide said there are four generations of cars in Cuba. First are those pre-revolutionary American cars—the vintage Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Studebakers from the 1950s that somehow keep running. Then came the Russian-made Ladas, the small, ugly, square compacts that look like Fiats stripped of any Italian design.

By the ’70s and ’80s, Japanese and other Asian cars started trickling into Cuba, and they became the auto of choice after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the last decade, the more expensive European cars began showing up. More recently, a fleet of fancy buses, mostly from China, has arrived to shuttle around the 2.5 million tourists now visiting the island each year (and improve public transportation in general).

The cars, of course, reflect the stages of Cuba’s economic relationship with the outside world: the embargo from the U.S., its initial reliance on all things Russian, then growing global trade, followed by the influx of European tourists, and the recent economic resurgence of China.

Cars can now be bought and sold by Cubans. This is one example of dramatic new economic policies, approved last April, being instituted in Cuba. Dr. Osvaldo Martinez, director of Cuba’s World Economy Research Center, called these changes “shock therapy,” like that being experienced by Greece, Spain, and many countries. Cubans should no longer “idolize” the Cuban economic model, Martinez said. Salaries have been increasing faster than productivity. Foods are being imported that could be produced domestically, but weren’t because of the inefficiencies of centralized, Soviet-style agriculture. There has been an “exaggerated number of state employees,” and massive layoffs have been occurring. At times Martinez nearly sounded like a Republican.

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