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Cacharros: The Persistence Of Vintage Automobiles In Cuba

Introduction

Cuba has been called the world’s largest open-air antique car museum. To anyone who visits Cuba, it is all but impos­sible to miss the pre-1960s American-made cars that daily ply the roads (Figure 1). The vintage cars from such manufacturing giants as Ford, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Chrysler as well as long-forgotten DeSotos, Nashs, Packards, Studebakers, and Edsels are ubiquitous on Cuban roads, especially in Havana. As the volume of international tourists (especially from the U.S.) increases, and articles in the popular press about the Island become more prevalent, awareness of this fleet of old American cars continues to grow. But few visitors understand the lengths to which Cubans go to keep these classic cars running. What is the cultural message carried in some of Detroit’s most extravagant creations? What explains the extraordinary efforts to keep the cacharros (jalopies) running? The purpose of this article is to identify some of the forces behind the existence of an entire fleet of aged automobiles in Cuba.

During its heyday – the first five decades of the 20th Century – Detroit and its environs were home to hundreds of auto­mobile manufacturing companies (Wise, Boddy, and Laban 1983; Berger 2001). Many of the “steel sleds” assembled throughout the Great Lakes region were exported to various parts of the world including Cuba. For most of the world, the Chariots of Chrome succumbed to old age and gradually disappeared from the landscape. Yet, in Cuba their numbers have remained strong. There is considerable debate as to how many pre-1960s cars still exist in Cuba and a contemporary car count is problematic. One source asserts there are about 200,000 automobiles in Cuba of which 167,000 were made in the United States (Schweid 2004). Yet, other sources place the vintage fleet at 60,000 (Navarro 2002) or as few as 31,000 (Luxner 2004). Whatever the number, the survival of even 31,000 pre-1960 working cars is remarkable in light of the half-century U.S. embargo on any replacement parts reaching the Island and the efforts made by the Cuban government to eliminate most things American from Cuban soil. So why do the American-made cars survive in Cuba?

There may be as many cultural explanations for why Cuba has so many old automobiles as there are models of vintage cars in Cuba. A common explanation we heard is that Cuba has a strong affinity for beauty and the arts. Thus, the classic cars are maintained because of their unique design and shapely style that mirrors Cuban society. Another explanation fre­quently heard is that Cuba has a strong culture of recycling; a practice prevalent in many developing countries (Drackner 2005). Running counter to America’scurrent disposition for disposability, it is much more cost effective to repair a worn out or broken item rather than discard it and pur­chase a new one. Our research reveals that although the above explanations may all be correct to an extent, we have discovered three additional explanations why Cubans are motivated to maintain thousands of American-made cars far beyond their intended or practical life expectancy.

Methodology

Data for this article were initially derived from a synthesis of disparate sec­ondary sources. We perused books, jour­nal articles, video documentaries, news reports, popular magazines, trade journals, web pages, and blogs that focused on vin­tage automobiles in Cuba. After an initial understanding of the affinity Cubans have for the vintage cars, we ground-truthed those findings through field work in Cuba. Between December 2010 and January 2011, we conducted approximately 40 semi­structured interviews with a wide cross section of Cubans including car owners, taxicab drivers, mechanics, government workers, and local residents. Unless other­wise noted, the informants preferred to remain anonymous. Our fieldwork focused primarily on the greater Havana metropolitan area, but we also conducted research in western Cuba as far away as Pinar del Rio (Figure 2). We documented our findings in daily field journals and captured over 350 digital photos.