CUBA: A LIVE AUTO MUSEUM
What inspired me to write this article is my first vacation trip to Cuba, which impressed me incredibly. The resort area where we were staying is situated on a perfect Atlantic coast with excellent beaches, hotels, swimming pools, restaurants with pretty good service...
What inspired me to write this article is my first vacation trip to Cuba, which impressed me incredibly. The resort area where we were staying is situated on a perfect Atlantic coast with excellent beaches, hotels, swimming pools, restaurants with pretty good service. It would seem that everything is good on today's "Island of Freedom", but as we discovered, the beautiful life is reserved here for tourists. We had to buy a camera charger, which we had left at home in a hurry, and decided to go to a nearby town and take a look at Cuba from inside.
We knew, of course, that Cubans live modestly ... but that was even beyond our expectations! The reality that we saw during our trip was striking and it threw us far back into the times of the Soviet "socialist space". The time seems to have stopped here half a century ago, and everything reminded us of an outskirt of a former Soviet Union... but first things first.
CUBA: A LIVE AUTO MUSEUM
Right upon arrival in Cuba, at Holguin airport, we felt the reverberations of the Soviet Union of the 60-70-ies. It was a late evening, with temperature above +30 C and 100% humidity (the tropics, of course) but it turned out there was no air-conditioning at the airport, the air was sultry, and it was quite dark.
The long queue to the customs control was moving slowly (4 planes landed at once that evening), so I left the airport building and went to the tarmac to breathe fresh air and look around. The airport equipment reminded me of the past and awoke the professional interest. What I saw was an airplane tanker built on the chassis of a Spanish truck PEGASO made in the 70-ies of the last century (truck manufacturer PEGASO seized to exist since the end of the 80-ies), an aircraft tower standing nearby was a very old model those were long ago decommissioned from service in Europe. An ancient BELARUS tractor was towing passengers' luggage on trolleys. All service vehicles on the airfield seemed to have been brought from a museum.
Outside the airport, on quite a large parking lot stood just a couple of Soviet Lada cars and two or three American rarities with a TAXI sign.
Nonetheless, the bus parking lot was filled with modern tourist liners. Having dedicated almost 25 years of my life to buses I thought that those were vehicles made by a famous Spanish manufacturer IRIZAR, only slightly different and a bit strange. Upon closer examination they turned out to be Chinese-made buses YUTONG ZK6100H, almost completely copied from the Spanish original but the quality of the work was quite rough. An interesting detail: as I learnt later, the YUTONG Company even made it into the Guinness book of records as the only manufacturer that has supplied 5350 buses of all types to Cuba within 3 years.
The bus that took us to the hotel turned out to be a rather comfortable vehicle with convenient reclining seats, a TV, a washroom and air-conditioning. I noted to myself that even the shape of the dashboard, the design of the interior with blue lighting and air conditioning tunnels were copied from the same Spanish IRIZARA model.
Interestingly, during an hour-long trip the driver kept turning off the air-conditioner and only kept it on for a couple of minutes when it was impossible to breathe (probably, to save a couple of liters of gas). While on our way to the hotel, we noticed the absence of traffic and the lack of illumination on the roads. In addition, it was a pretty bumpy ride.
To be honest, those first impressions vanished the following morning: the view of the resort and the ocean coast completely dispelled the dullness of yesterday's ride. The resort was quite pretty and modern, with great service and welcoming staff...
I would like to take a brake here and to talk about a real life of a real Cuba that we saw during our short trip. We rented a brand new (2500 km on the odometer) small SUV SUZUKI JIMNY, a cute little car with a 1300 cc and 86 hp engine, and with air conditioning. A smiley car rental clerk suggested that we should visit the town of HOLGUIN and a historic fishermen's town-fortress GIBARA on the Atlantic coast, so we started on our short 6-hour trip to a non-touristy Cuba.
We drove towards a nearby town whose name is pronounced as HOL'KIN in Spanish, which is located about 50 km away from our resort. The highway passed between small villages, farms and banana plantations. All of them were fenced but not with an enclosure but with dense thickets of cactus no way in (!). Along the road moved pedestrians, cyclists and rare automobiles, mostly ancient Soviet and American passenger cars or trucks, and sometimes horse-drawn transportation in the form of a uniaxial cart on old automobile wheels, pulled by a skinny mule, an undersized horse or a donkey, carrying anything from people to cargo, sometimes both altogether.
Large groups of people got together at all road intersections under the shade of trees or under the eaves, waiting for a bus or passing traffic. The local law obliges passenger car or truck drivers (except for rental cars driven by tourists) to give a ride to other people if there is a spare seat in their vehicle.
According to unofficial statistics, cars in Cuba are divided into three categories: a distant past (classical American cars of the 40-50-ies), a relatively recent past (Soviet cars) and present (modern and cheap, mainly Chinese cars)
The vast majority are Soviet cars made in the 60-70 ies of the past century. Today, they could only be found in remote areas of Russia. The Soviet Union had likely been the only long-term supplier of cars to the Cuban market, otherwise how would one explain the dominance of a full range of Soviet automobiles on the Cuban roads: they make up 70-80% of the entire fleet.
I think some ZIL-140, GAZ-53 truck models were equipped by Cubans with a diesel engine, because driving uphill they emitted black acrid smoke smelling of unburned low-quality diesel fuel.
We also came across some well-preserved American passenger cars from the 40-50-ies, and American trucks of the same age.
As you know, 53 years ago the people of Cuba, under the revolutionary banners of the legendary Comandante Fidel Castro and his companion Ernesto Che Guevara, drove out of the country "the much hated American colonists" and lives today in the country of the "victorious socialism" on the "Island of Freedom." In order not to divide the people into "the poor" and "the rich", there is still no private property in the "free" Cuba. This applies to all vehicles, except for bicycles, which are in abundance of all kinds in Cuba: typical ones, rickshaws, cargo-carrying bikes.
Overall, an automobile in Cuba is both a luxury and transportation. No Cuban able in mind will sell their old car, and until recently only the best workers were allowed to buy a new vehicle, and they are expensive anyway. It is not unusual for the car to be inherited by a son, and then by a grandson.
Cuba turned into a country of retro cars due to the ban on vehicle import and export since the year of the revolution in 1959. Since then Cuba has accumulated a large number of functioning cars from the 50-es.
Only the cars imported to Cuba before 1959 could be traded.
The Cuban government lifted the ban only recently. Starting from October 1, 2011 private persons are allowed to trade cars. For the first time since 1959 the citizens of the "Island of Freedom" are able to buy and sell vehicles. It is referred to as the "transfer of vehicle ownership by purchase, sale or donation." Both Cubans and foreign permanent or temporary residents in Cuba are allowed to participate in a transaction. Prior to that, a vehicle owner was allowed to make a transaction only in case the car was manufactured before 1959, the year of the Cuban revolution's victory.
Ancient American passenger cars manufactured in the 40-50-ies of the last century, such as Ford, Chrysler, Plymouth, Studebaker, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Chevrolet, are still in not such a bad shape despite quite an old age (minimum 50-60 years). Perhaps there are two main reasons to that: the absence of cold winters, and consequently, the absence of salt (or chemicals) or snow on the roads, as well as the inevitable (under these life conditions) affection to cars, enthusiasm of their owners, the ability to maintain and constantly repair this rarity, which allows these cars to continue their movement despite huge mileage, accumulated within more than half a century. I think every auto museum of the world would gladly accept these cars as live museum exhibits and pay big money for those.
However, American passenger cars are in a relatively good state compare to American trucks with the same manufactured dates, which also have been inherited from the "colonialists" and which still serve the people of Cuba today.
Lots of trucks that we came across in HOLGUIN and later on the way to another Cuban town GIBARA, were old FORD, CHEVROLET, GMC, BEDFORD, WILLIS, FIAT, PEGASO cars remodeled beyond recognition and repainted by local craftsmen, with multiple patches, self-made fenders and front bumpers and horrible iron bodies. It looks like these cars only survive thanks to the pure enthusiasm of their drivers who are not able to buy original spare parts and who have to manufacture them on their own, as their imagination dictates it. That's why even with my extensive knowledge of the vehicle market I could not always define an approaching car's brand, because the only original part in it was its frame.
The last place among trucks goes to almost new or brand new and certainly rare cars by MERCEDES, MAN, DAF, RENAULT, IVECO, as well as their copies or trucks made under license in China. Once were saw a completely new American FREIGHTLINER with a low semi-trailer supplying tourist zones with Mexican beer.
Today, the major supplier of new cars to Cuba, including passenger cars, trucks and buses, is China who has replaced the no longer existing Soviet Union. Only as opposed to the former Soviet Union, China does not supply Cuba with vehicles almost for free (or as a barter in exchange for sugar), but on a commercial basis, although at low prices. A transaction by a bus manufacture YUTONG that I mentioned above is a good example.
Almost all trucks and buses, regardless of their manufactured date emitted lots of smoke when going uphill. For that reason even with functioning air-conditioning and closed windows we had to switch to air recirculation, otherwise it was impossible to breathe because of carbon monoxide emissions from a vehicle moving in the front.
Interestingly, while we travelled around towns we never saw a single garage or an auto repair shop. As a rule, almost all cars are repaired at a roadside or in a yard (as it used to be in the Soviet Russia).
From time to time we came across new modern passenger cars manufactured mainly in China. Once we even saw a brand new BMW-530 at a parking lot, but it turned out it was meant for a local mayor.
According to Rolando, a clerk with a car rental company (which is by the way owned by the Cuban army), a 40-year old Soviet Lada now costs about 12-14 thousand Cuban peso ($13-15.000), and the cost of an American car from the 50-ies is up to 20 thousand dollars. While an average monthly salary is $15-25!!!!
Gas price in Cuba (there is only one kind of fuel A-80) is $1.50 per liter. Diesel is almost half the gas price, but it is sold by coupons. All the petrol on the "Island of Freedom" is imported mainly from Venezuela, often on a barter basis (in exchange for agricultural produce, sugar and medicine). Housing, education and health care is absolutely free for Cubans, just like it was in the Soviet Union. However, food stamps provided by the state are still in use. Both in towns and in villages the people work for the benefit of the state and for a small salary (as well as different kinds of stamps and subsidies). All houses and apartments also belong to the state. According to the economy reform, in future it is planned to allow Cubans to sell and buy real estate and travel abroad. Moreover, step by step the government is planning to cancel the rationing system of food distribution, which was common for several generations of Cubans.
Now it is time to tell you in more detail about passenger transportation for locals (not foreign tourists), and this is a separate topic.
Cubans do not seem to be fussy about the means of transportation... otherwise how would you explain this phenomenon: an old FORD, DODGE or ZIL just like from a museum, emitting black smoke, with an iron body, tall sides, an iron roof, iron gates instead of a rear side and an iron staircase, full of people standing like herrings in a tin, breathing through cut out holes as wide as a human face, and it is 30 C outside! The body of such a bus-truck is equipped with low holes on the sides instead of windows. And those are vehicles that transport people between towns and villages. Incredible!
The situation in towns is a bit different: the main means of transportation here is a bike- or a motor-rickshaw, or strange looking route taxis, built on the chassis of three-wheeled cargo motorbikes, with an engine from Java, with a built-in body accommodating 6-8 persons who sit facing one another on iron benches; or very old pickup trucks or SUV's with a metal or a wooden roof, with passenger benches built into the body of the vehicle.
Unfortunately we did not get out of the car in urban areas during our trip because as we slowed down in a town, lots of people would run our way and offer business cards it seems that any tourist in a new car is a huge attraction and a desired source of income. We don't speak Spanish, so we were not able to communicate with them and find out the real reason for such an interest expressed towards us.
The car rental clerk informed us that there is virtually no crime in Cuba but still, the crowds of people running towards our moving vehicle with unknown intentions didn't produce a favorable impression.
We didn't even manage to buy a camera cable due to the absence (as opposed to Cuba's capital Havana) of any stores in the downtown of HOLGUIN (the capital of the province), a town with the population of 300 thousand people. On the other hand, we saw a lot... My wife had taken a spare little camera, so we still managed to capture the world around us.
We drove out of the regional centre and took a road leading to a fishermen's town GIBARA situated in a bay on the Atlantic coast, 30 km away from HOLGUIN. Rolando told us that it is a real tourist attraction. By the way, this name should be pronounced as "HIBARA" in Spanish (which sounds like "an old hut" in Russian). As we later found out, this name suits this location very well.
The road leading to "Hibara" was much worse than the road from our hotel to the region's capital. It was narrow, almost completely destroyed, without road marks, without repairs, with multiple patches, with occasional truck buses or strange looking route taxis filled with people. It was devoid of road signs but as it approached to GUIBARA, the both sides of the road were covered by the banners carrying patriotic slogans that praised modern and past rules and heroes of the revolution, and called on Cubans to work hard for the benefit of the Motherland.
As we entered the town of GUIBARA it was obvious that it produced a depressing effect: rusty fishing schooners in the bay, sad buildings downtown, still left from the colonial past but completely run down. An untidy shoreline which once was the pride of the town looks more like a garbage dump with a monument to a revolutionary hero with a hat and a rifle.
We were under the impression that the town was destroyed by a war or a powerful hurricane, and never got restored since then. Even downtown didn't look any better and looked completely abandoned.
We drove through downtown and found ourselves in the outskirts with five- and three-storey buildings that looked horrible. We were finally convinced that there are two different Cubas: one is beautiful, modern and well-equipped for tourists, and the other one is for common Cuba citizens dull, neglected and unfit for a normal human living.
On the way back, as we almost left Guibara, the road was blocked by a police officer on a motorbike who accompanied a truck carrying a clumsy ride for children that took up the entire space on the road. The attraction was in the form of a huge rusty butterfly that spread its wings across the road. The view was quite suitable for the atmosphere of this ghost town. On the way from Guibara to Holguin we didn't see any signs showing driving direction, and as we approached a roundabout near the town, which served as an intersection of several roads, we expected one of them to be leading to our resort but couldn't see any direction signs.
After taking a couple of rides around the roundabout, we suddenly discovered a road sign with our direction on one of the roads, far away, about 100 m away from the square.
Right at the town exit we found a local traffic police post, also much resembling the ones in Russia.
On the way back to our resort we drove in silence, impressed by what we had seen. As the rental clerk accepted the car, he noticed that the car was returned without damages or claims and noted: "You must be a professional driver if you managed to drive through the towns and roads of the province without losing your way or getting in trouble, and you brought the car back safe and sound. It doesn't often happen to tourists who rent cars from us."