In 1959, following the revolution, the new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, froze the importation of automobiles. Many of the automobiles that were already in Cuba became, through the passage of time, vintage automobiles, often the kind sought out by collectors.
Around 60,000 of these cars may still be traveling the Cuban countryside and the alleys of Havana. But finding a collectible of value will be a challenge. For every hidden gem, there are thousands of beaten-up clunkers, largely stripped of their original parts to keep other cars rolling.
Some cars are in pristine condition and others are barely held together by pounds of bondo and duct tape — mid-century Chevys, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs and Buicks, and they still rumble down Havana’s Malecón. Tourism has become the leading industry of Cuba, and the travelers from Europe, Asia, South America, Mexico and now the U.S. all want a ride through town in a classic pink or purple convertible.
With the easing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, some of those 60,000 vintage cars will eventually make their way into collectors’ hands stateside. But buyer beware: While a Cadillac convertible in Cuba may look authentic, a closer examination may reveal hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer and a multitude of makeshift fixes, and perhaps even a (gasp!) Peugeot diesel engine under the hood. That said, experts anticipate a niche market of buyers might be willing to pay a premium to own a piece of Cuban history. But will their owners, proud as they are of their heritage, be willing to sell them off? It is part of the joy to watch the car owners attempt to be as colorful and brilliant as their autos, all in the style of 1959.
Lifting the U.S. embargo would mostly help Cuban classic car owners buy parts. Most of the cars are far more valuable in Cuba than they would be in the United States. Not only have they lost so many of the original parts that collectors crave, but the old workhorses also provide crucial income for their owners. As taxis, their famously spacious interiors can accommodate half a dozen passengers.
Cubans squeeze in for the equivalent of $0.40, while tourists like to take rides in the spiffier-looking convertibles for about $30 an hour. It is well worth it, if I do say so myself!
Similar to the chicken-wired bumpers of the old cars are the shredding ribbons of the ballet shoes of the students at the School for the National Ballet in Havana. It was originally founded in 1931, but grew into the prestigious institution it now is in the 1960s, after Fidel Castro came to power and declared that art and education were for the people. Talented children from all over the island can get free ballet training. The school is open to every child – determined by talent and potential, not economic stratum.
Typically, children are accepted when they are ten years old for five years of intense training; they then do a couple more years of training at a professional level. But only a handful of graduating students can be selected for the country’s premier company, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Why are we westerners/capitalists taught that everything in socialism and communism is evil? Those negative assertions melted to nothingness for me when I watched a class of 12-16 year olds practicing Swan Lake. Each graceful movement and pose performed in the un-air-conditioned tattered dance hall was a testimony to both beauty and the successes of the revolution for the people of Cuba.