Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba
|Publisher:||The University of North Carolina Press|
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About the Author
Richard Schweid was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and now lives in Barcelona, Spain, where he is a founder and senior editor of the city magazine Barcelona Metropolitan. His previous books include Consider the Eel and The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore. He served as production manager for the Oscar-nominated film Balseros, a documentary feature about Cuban refugees.
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Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's OldsmobileOn the Road in Cuba
By Richard Schweid
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 Richard Schweid
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLocomobiles and Model T's
One of the first things most visitors to Cuba note is the absence of advertisements for anything other than the Revolution. The relatively few billboards to be seen stand at the entrances to towns or at important urban junctions. They carry short, punchy, revolutionary exhortations in bright letters-social realism in advertising. Some call on the Cuban people to set their sights on the future, and others pay homage to heroes of the Revolution like Fidel Castro Ruz and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine physician who fought beside Castro and later died trying to organize a revolution from the mountains of Bolivia. While Castro and Che are known around the world, others extolled in signage are less well known outside Cuba; but they gave their lives for the Revolution, and their names are familiar to any Cuban over eight years old-patriots like Camilo Cienfuegos, Abel Santamaría, Frank País, and José Antonio Echevarría. Rather than learning brand names, every schoolchild learns a long list of Cuba's heroes.
Numerous North American heroes of the Cuban Revolution, however, remain unsung, and they do have brand names-names like Chevrolet, Ford, Studebaker, Chrysler, Rambler, Cadillac, Plymouth, Dodge, and Buick. Unsung, but not unknown, they have served the Revolution tirelessly, and continue to do so on a daily basis, carrying its loads, transporting its people. Che Guevara had a Chevrolet, and Fidel Castro's favorite car after the triumph of the Revolution on January 1, 1959, was an Oldsmobile, although he has long since graduated to a Mercedes with a driver. A 1951 Chevrolet carried Fidel's brother Raúl Castro Ruz to an assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953. The attack failed, and both Fidel and Raúl Castro went to prison, but the Revolution had begun. Less than seven years later, Castro would fly victorious from Santiago de Cuba, at the eastern end of the island, to Havana and would ride from the airport to the heart of the city in a Willys Jeep.
Like images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, whose faces or silhouettes adorn walls in nearly every home and office, the cars built in Detroit and sold to Cubans fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago have become emblematic. A photo of a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air in front of an arched colonnade means Havana and Cuba all over the world, much as does Che's image on scores of products from T-shirts to postcards. Detroit's cars have been absorbed into the extensive iconography of Cuban history.
Present-day Cuba reveals a remarkable mixture of influences that seem to come in roughly equal parts from Africa's west coast, Spain, and the United States. Cubans have combined Europe and Africa, the Catholic Church and Santería's pantheon of deities, in approximately equal amounts, all leavened with a big dose of North American money, manners, and cultural values, in a tropical climate, with the whole loaf iced by a revolution. The island is somewhere unlike anywhere else. For Cubans, the irony of depending for much of their automobile transport on pre-1960 cars built by the enemy merits little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
In the very center of old Havana, white and gleaming in the sun stands a full-scale, two-block-long replica of the United States Capitol called El Capitolio Nacional. The National Capitol was initiated in 1929, under the government of Gerardo Machado, and it took 5,000 workers more than three years to complete the project. It looms domed and familiar over the Paseo Martí. The huge expanse of marble serves as the heart of Cuba, as the one in Washington, D.C., does for the United States. It is the beginning of everything, the alpha of national identity. An imitation two-carat diamond is sunk into the marble floor directly under the center of the dome. This is point zero-the distances between Havana and other places along the 750-mile length of the island are measured from this spot. Outside, at the bottom of the long rows of marble steps descending to the sidewalk, are parked long lines of pre-1959 American cars. The sight of sixty or seventy 1950s cars from the States, parked in ranks in front of an exact replica of the U.S. Capitol, in the middle of Fidel Castro's Havana, is an odd sight, indeed. On any given day, some of the automobiles parked there are makes that have been declared extinct on the streets of the United States: Packards, Plymouths, Studebakers, Nash Ramblers, Kaisers, Henry J's, Willys Overlands, Edsels, and De Sotos. To say nothing of the "muscle cars," the 1954 Ford station wagons, and the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs. Havana's residents, Habaneros as they call themselves, can still enjoy a sighting of the sleek curving lines of a Studebaker or the boxy, functional design of a Rambler, cars built by automobile companies so long disappeared from the commercial map of the States as to be unknown to a majority of living North Americans. These endangered species in the streets surrounding El Capitolio are working cars, not pampered, garaged collectibles like the few of their ilk that still exist stateside. They are ruteros, taxis that run fixed routes beginning at the foot of the Capitol's steps and fanning out along the broad avenues and main thoroughfares of the city. All day long, crossing the chewed-up streets of Havana under a broiling sun in heavy traffic, they carry as many humans as can be squeezed in: three in the front seat and five behind is the minimum. The number of passengers who can be accommodated is often higher, as rudimentary seats are welded in place to fill any open space, and many of the cars Detroit produced in the 1950s had plenty of open space. Havana has its share of hills as well as terrible heat and corrosive, wet salt air blowing in from the sea. It is not a climate conducive to keeping an automobile in good working condition.
Many of these cars are what Cubans call cacharros, a term of semiendearment, semicontempt, more or less equivalent to the English word "jalopy." These cars are like old people. They have liver spots of discolored paint, an inability to retain their fluids, and a coughing ignition that makes it hard for them to get started in the morning. Still, they hunch over and keep on going. Most of these cacharros have been seriously altered as they aged, have undergone the equivalents of organ transplants and joint reconstructions, with a great number of them adapted to burn diesel fuel, much more economical than high-octane gasoline. After many years of coexisting with big, old North American cars and newer, smaller models from the Soviet Bloc, plenty of Cuban mechanics have learned to combine an original Detroit engine with a diesel model out of a Volga or a Moskvich or a Lada, encouraging relations between the USA and the USSR long before the Cold War ended. Few are the parts of a car that Cubans have not learned to adapt or duplicate.
In the summer of 2002, gas was selling for seventy-five U.S. cents a liter (almost $3.00 a gallon), while diesel was going for fifteen to twenty cents, and most people paid less than that since they bought their fuel on the ample black market. From refinery to gas station, all along the way are people with siphons. Where there are lots of state-owned vehicles and the gasoline to keep them running, some of the fuel will find its way to cars being put to private use. Often the easiest way to find black-market gas or diesel is to pull into a Cupet, the state-owned filling station, and ask the attendant where you can find something cheaper than what he is pumping.
The converted Soviet diesel engine works for a while, but it wears out motors, transmissions, drive trains. It is a modification that sentences a car to a slow but certain death. Everyone knows the drawbacks to diesel, so a lot of cars still have their original engines. If it is financially possible, people prefer not to install a diesel. A rutero does not afford that luxury. With the car running back and forth all day, filled with passengers, it must be adapted to hold down costs any way possible.
New, factory-made spare parts have not been available for North American cars in Cuba since the United States stopped doing business with the island in October 1960. Nevertheless, knowledgeable observers estimate that some 60,000 such cars are still on the streets, most of them in the island's two largest cities, Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Somehow, they keep on running, despite the blockade. When asked how it is possible to maintain so many cars without factory-made parts, most Cubans will just shrug and say something offhand, invoking what has become the real national slogan in five decades of revolutionary life: hay que resolver, it has to be resolved, a solution has to be found. If a car has to have a part replaced, hay que resolver. In a country where the whole point is to keep cars running as long as possible, the number of vehicles available to be cannibalized for parts is steadily declining. The daily newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde have no ads, classified or otherwise; no one publishes an old car newsletter; there are no junkyards; no parts houses exist. News of an old car being dismantled or sold usually arrives through the same media that carries other real news pertinent to a person's life in Cuba: Radio Bemba, bemba being Cuban for lip. Radio Bemba, word of mouth, lip-to-ear. That's where the market for brake shoes and transmissions and front ends operates, and the casual mention of an old car stored away somewhere is enough to justify spending a day following up on such a Radio Bemba tip.
For many of these old cars, life was not always such a struggle. Originally, they were owned by members of the middle and upper class. Like the majority of the Cuban people themselves during the 1950s, these automobiles served the rich, toiled in an economy with its roots sunk deep in sugarcane and the United States, an economy built on the backs of people condemned to grinding poverty. Cadillacs and their drivers waited all night outside glittering casinos, while not far away people bedded down on the sidewalk. But car ownership in Cuba was not entirely limited to the rich during Detroit's glory years of design. Chevys graced many a middle-class life, and even secretaries and clerks in Havana or Santiago de Cuba were able, using the credit that was readily available, to buy a Ford. Certainly, a majority of Cubans did not make enough to own a car, but Detroit reached out even to them. Those without steady work, or any work, could ride a bus for five cents. These, too, were most often built in Detroit and shipped to the island.
The history of motor vehicles in Cuba, up until the Revolution, is a microcosm of the history of relations between the United States and its island neighbor ninety miles to the south. The United States and Cuba were so close during the first half of the twentieth century that they were practically joined together at the waist, knit together at the eyebrows. Cubans were fascinated with North American consumer culture and provided a busy market for all things modern and yankee, yanqui. Likewise, its huge neighbor to the north had an ongoing fascination with Cuba. Politicians in the United States have long been trying, with lesser or greater success, to impose their will on Cuba, and for the first sixty years of the twentieth century, huge fortunes flowed out of Cuba to the United States, as they had to Spain in the preceding century, while dollars flooded back in to line the pockets of the island's privileged.
After the Revolution, vehicles, like housing, had to be placed at the disposal of the new regime and the people of Cuba. Outwardly, the island's cars and trucks deteriorated, rusted, were rewired and rebuilt, not unlike the spectacular buildings of Havana, but they were deemed to be serving a greater good-the people they carried had learned to read and write, and, by 1998, their society had a lower infant mortality rate than that of the United States. The cars, like the buildings, were called on to make sacrifices, required to accommodate more people: the comfort factor was severely reduced in favor of utility and assuring that everyone had a little bit of something. Like Cuba's crumbling housing stock, some of the cars and trucks could not take it and collapsed, but others have stayed the race.
The face of Eastern European or Soviet communism was drab, second-best, and gray-safe, if unexciting. Cuba has never been that way. Life in Cuba is colorful; pleasure and passion are cultural keynotes, and the island's vegetation is lush, exuberant, and tropical. Its architecture is colonial, and Cuba is, first and foremost, a Caribbean country. To gauge the effects of the totalitarian communist regime that is the cult-of-the-personality Revolution in Cuba today, it is more instructive to look to life in the rest of Caribbean Latin America than to other vanished communist economies. It is not hard to see what Cuba would be like now if it were not for the Revolution. Just look at its neighbors, former Spanish colonies like Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, all places where being poor can kill you, where there is a bone-crushing, hope-extinguishing level of poverty. This sort of privation has not existed in Cuba since 1959. There have been hard times, lean times, long periods when there was not enough to go around, but people have not moved en masse to raise their children and their children's children at garbage dumps. It is true that people are not free to travel or to live uncensored lives. The Revolution treats Cubans like children, not permitting them to grow up and make choices for themselves. Real children in Cuba, however, all go to school, and adults have medical attention for their families and can keep a roof-albeit, a humble one-over their heads. None of their more "democratic" neighbors have quite figured out how to accomplish this, and Cubans are proud of these achievements.
Most Cubans will manage to get by, but they will never, in their whole lives, have enough money to buy a car. There is no formal credit system, and the only way to get a car is to buy one for cash, unless its owner is prepared to offer a private payment plan. The government has given many thousands of Soviet cars to Cuban professionals, government workers, managers, and military officers to use for life, but they cannot be sold or even inherited. They belong to the state. Pre-1960 Detroit models can be owned by individuals. They are given a paper called a traspaso, which allows the cars to be bought and sold privately, but as the pool of vehicles has grown smaller, the prices that must be paid for them have reached levels far out of most people's reach. For the few Cubans who inherit a car, only rarely can they afford fuel for it.
Excerpted from Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's Oldsmobile by Richard Schweid Copyright © 2004 by Richard Schweid. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Locomobiles and Model T's
Chapter 2. Tudores and Fordores
Chapter 3. Buses and Trolleys
Chapter 4. 1957 Chevys
Chapter 5. Che's Chevy and Fidel's Olds
What People are Saying About This
This beautifully textured and detailed volume examines the strengths and weaknesses of dictatorship, the irresistible force of money-hungry corporations, the role of publicity in politics, and the influence, good and bad, of the U.S. abroad. . . . Schweid is one of those unpredictable explorers who gets out in the world, looks around and doesn't blink. . . . Schweid interviewed mechanics and matrons, artists and historians to create this wide-ranging and thoughtful account of a revolution's aftermath, as seen from the highway.BookPage