After six decades of enmity, the US and Cuba are seeking stronger trade ties. The end of the road for the country’s classic cars?
On 19 March Starwood Resorts put an old grudge to bed. Having left Cuba in 1959, the hospitality giant signed a deal to run three hotels on the island – the first US company to do so in more than 60 years. Compared to another American lodger, however, Starwood was late to the party: Airbnb entered the country in December 2014. Cuba is currently the home-sharing app’s fastest-growing market, with 4,000 rooms added in 2015.
No surprise then that Brian Chesky, the company’s founder, was one of several entrepreneurs who flew to Havana alongside Barack Obama last week. The US president’s visit was the first by an American leader in 88 years. It was historic in other respects: in a speech meant to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War”, Obama urged the US Congress to lift 55-year-old restrictions on trade with the island.
Most Westerners saw Obama’s address as a groundbreaking moment. While praising the prospects of greater economic exchanges, however, some now worry about a possible side effect: the disappearance of classic cars from the rugged streets of Cuba.
Beautiful and colourful, antique vehicles are ubiquitous on the island. But while being a main draw to visitors, they also are a glaring expression of the US embargo, which prohibits American cars from being sold to Cuba. In fact, until rules were relaxed a few years ago, Cubans were forbidden from buying any foreign vehicles at all.
In theory, classic cars could be pulled out Cuban roads for two reasons: they could be forced to retire as imports of modern rivals start to soar, or their population could dwindle as overseas collectors start shipping them to new homes.
Foreigners certainly have appetite for the old-school Chevrolets, Buicks and Fords that roam around the island. But would-be buyers continue to face a ban on buying classic cars from Cuba, because most of these were produced by US automakers prior to 1960. Under the embargo, Americans visiting the island are only allowed to bring back locally made items. With US elections looming and Republicans dominating Congress, restrictions probably aren’t about to go away.
Another roadblock are questions about the cars’ real value. Because exports of parts to Cuba are also forbidden, the vehicles of today are highly modified versions of their former selves. Owners have often resorted to jerry-rigged fixes to keep them running: a mechanic quoted by Bloomberg says he routinely sees snow tyres and boat engines under the hood. Collectors interested in Cuban cars will probably seek them more for their historical resonance than for their actual value.
But even culture-minded buyers may struggle to seal deals. Cubans themselves don’t seem very eager to sell: they often feel attached to the vehicles they spend hours repairing and customising, especially when these cars – inherited from elders – have been in the family for decades. These icons are points of great pride. Owning one of them is widely noticed and respected in Cuba.
Could an import boom do more to endanger Cuba’s classic car fleet? Unlikely. Since December 2013, Cubans no longer need a special authorisation to buy foreign cars. Yet with a state monopoly on new sales, prices are through the roof even by Western standards: a Peugeot 508, which the French maker lists at $29,000, is said to be available on the Cuban market at a bargain $262,000. State workers in Cuba earn an average $20 a month.
The government says the profits will be used to revamp the country’s public transport system. I wouldn’t bet on this effort going full throttle.