Car Museum

There is a detail of our reality that fascinates tourists and surprises collectors around the world: the number of old cars still running on the streets of the country.  Right now, on some Havana street, a 1952 Chevrolet purrs along, and a Cadillac, older than the Minister of Transportation himself, is in use as a shared taxi.  They pass by us, rusting out or newly painted, on the point of collapse or winning a contest for their excellent state of repair.  These rolling miracles make up a part of our country, just like the long lines, the crowded buses, and the political billboards.

At first, visitors show surprise and pleasure on seeing the theme park created by these vehicles. They take pictures and pay up to three times as much to sit in their roomy interiors. After asking the driver, the astonished foreigners discover that the body of that Ford from the early 20th century hides an engine that’s just a decade old, and tires adapted from a Russian Lada. As they earn the trust of the owner, he tells them that the brake system was a gift from a European friend, and that the headlights are originally from an ambulance.

Summer people marvel at the taste of Cubans in conserving such relics from the past, but few know that this is more by necessity than choice. You can’t go to a dealership and buy a new car, even if you have the money to pay for it, so we are forced to maintain the old. Without these artifacts of the last century, our city would be less picturesque and more immobile every day.


12 thoughts on “Car Museum

  1. Me parece fantastico que no se puedan comprar autos en Cuba.El automovil se ha constituido en un elemento danino para nuestro planeta a mas de provocar miles y miles de muertes cada ano.Si queremos salvar este planeta el mundo entero debiera copiar la forma cubana de vivir.

  2. @#10
    I thank you for your “thanks” yet please note what I posted is quoted FROM A LECTURE SR. JULIO LOBO gave at the University of Louisiana in 1963, NONE my words while I agree w/the statement.
    Without the freedom to express ourselves, to discuss & debate any issue presented in our lives there will be abuse of power & totalitarism … heck lets call it by its name: despots like the ones in Cuba.
    The very freedoms we exercise while free provide the necessary check & balance that keeps freedom & hope alive & the castro figures out but … without it …
    Look at today’s Cuba …

  3. My skin “crawls” every time I hear “the butcher’s” name …
    Every time I rmember his hate, cruelty & cowardice … the time passed evaporates w/the feeling of rage boiling in my veins.

  4. FROM:
    -“…The general misconception in this country that events in Cuba were brought about by low standards of living and social inequalities must and should be dispelled.

    For the misinformed who did not know Cuba of that time, I will give the following exact and unimpeachable figures based on such international technical organizations as the C.E.P.A.L. (Comisión Económica para America Latina) and the year books and bulletins of the U. N. and the UNESCO. The Ordinary Budget was roughly 600 million dollars and the Extraordinary Budget roughly another 600 million dollars which, in proportion to our numerical population, is a percentage very few countries can boast of. You must remember that Cuba had only 7 million inhabitants and a territorial extension of only 44 thousand square miles. Cuba had one physician for every 980 inhabitants, 2nd place in America; one dentist for each 3,000 inhabitants, 3rd place in America; an infant mortality rate of 37 per 1,000, the lowest in the Americas including the United States; a general mortality rate equal or lower than that of the United States; a literacy rate which placed Cuba in the 3rd place of Spanish America after Argentina and Costa Rica. The expenditures for public education were $28 per inhabitant, first place in America. The number of inhabitants per newspaper was 8, 2nd place in America; a television set for each 18 inhabitants, first in America. In Cuba over 79 lbs. of beef were consumed per inhabitant, 4th place in America, and almost 9 lbs. of fish, first place in America. The average diet was 2,682 calories, 3rd place in America. There was an automobile in Cuba for each 27 persons, 3rd place in America; and a telephone per each 24 persons, first in America. The per capita income was the highest in Spanish America, including of course Brazil; and when we say America we mean this Hemisphere excluding the U. S.

    Did the Cuban laborers live badly? Were their wages, social security and social legislation deficient? Of course not! The actual truth is that in 1958 in Cuba there existed all of’ the social insurance and social laws of the most advanced labor policies. Wages stood among the highest in the world. According to the Geneva International Labor Organization, the average wage for an industrial laborer was $6 a day, highest in Latin America, and the per cent of remuneration to labor in Cuba in 1958 was 66%, 4th in the world after the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom…”-
    Speaks for itseld doesn’t it?

  5. NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: ‘The Sugar King Of Havana,’ Cuba’s Last Tycoon-August 1, 2010

    Around midnight on Oct. 11, 1960, the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara summoned Julio Lobo to his office at the Central Bank in Havana. It was 22 months after the communist takeover, and Lobo knew his luck would soon run out. He was Cuba’s richest businessman — an avowed capitalist. And so when he arrived to meet the young revolutionary — Guevara was just 32 years old — he didn’t quite know what to expect.

    In his new book, The Sugar King of Havana, John Paul Rathbone describes the scene:

    “Guevara leaned forward in his chair, still formally polite, firm and clear. In so many words, he told Lobo that the time had come for him to make a decision: The revolution was communist and he, as a capitalist, could not remain as he was. Lobo could either stay and be part of it, or go.”

    Guevara wanted Lobo to run Cuba’s newly nationalized sugar industry. Rathbone’s book tells the story of what happened next and what led up to that moment. The book is part biography and part history of Cuba’s main cash crop — sugar.

    Lobo is not very well-known, but as Rathbone tells NPR’s Guy Raz, that is why he chose to write about him.

    “When you read Cuban history books, you see his name always as a footnote to some large deal, some large sugar crop, but his life is sort of shadowy and mysterious. And in time, I came to see Lobo as a kind of machine with which to explore the pre-revolutionary period,” Rathbone says.

    He says Lobo’s lifespan itself provides insight into Cuba’s historical transformation. Lobo was born the year after the War of Independence against Spain, in 1898, and left Cuba in 1960.

    At age 21, just out of college, Lobo brokered the most lucrative sugar deal at that point — worth $6 million — with the British firm Tate and Lyle.

    “I think it was that trade which gave Lobo the confidence — he’d been ambitious ever since a child — to think that he really could become ‘Sugar King,’ ” Rathbone says.

    Rathbone says that Cuba was the world’s largest exporter of sugar, and it controlled about half of the world’s “free-floating” sugar market — the market not protected by countries like the United States or Europe. Lobo himself controlled about 10 percent of the Cuban crop.

    Lobo tried to avoid the culture of gangsterism and cronyism that Rathbone describes as having flourished in Cuba. This period followed the military coup known as the Sergeants’ Revolt, on Sept. 4, 1933, led by dictator Fulgencio Batista himself — then an unknown sergeant in the army.

    “Lobo, despite his wealth, took pride in his honesty,” Rathbone says. “The only way to make money was to make it cleanly — otherwise it didn’t count in his view.”

    Lobo’s philosophy did not keep him safe from attack. On Aug. 6, 1946, Lobo purchased the Caracas Sugar Mill, which would become his largest. That same night, he was shot while driving home and nearly lost his life.

    “It was a very close call. He always walked with a limp afterwards. Through the rest of his life he had some shrapnel very close to his spine, and one bullet plowed through his skull and took four inches of bone off,” Rathbone says.

    In Sugar King, Rathbone explains that the Cuban bourgeoisie, now vilified by the Castro regime, were not necessarily pro-Batista. But they also opposed the idea of communism.

    “The vast majority of Cubans on the island, including the wealthy and the well-to-do, opposed Batista. And why not? He’d taken power in a coup in 1952; he was corrupt; the mafia was a rising influence; there was not very much that anyone really liked about him,” Rathbone says. “The idea that the upper classes in Cuba were opposed to Fidel Castro, or more accurately, that they didn’t want Batista out, is wrong. And there were various ways in which the upper-middle classes supported the rebels.”

    Lobo’s meeting with Guevara in 1960 shows their complicated connection.

    “[Lobo is] offered the sugar industry in Cuba. And he’s offered the chance to nationalize it and make it hum and become efficient, in the way that Lobo had often agitated for in the past,” Rathbone says.

    But Lobo’s response to Guevara was: “I’m a capitalist and you’re a communist. And I’ve been a capitalist all my life.”

    That night, Lobo knew that was the end. The next day, he went to his office to gather paperwork, but saw it had all been boarded up. After a brief interaction with a young boy in a green uniform sitting at his desk, Lobo left the office, and later that day flew to Mexico and then to New York.

    Since most of Lobo’s fortune was invested in the island, leaving meant starting over anew. For a while, he did well. But the markets did not go his way, and he lost it all again. Lobo died in exile in Spain in 1983. He was 85 years old. On a recent trip to Cuba, Rathbone found a commemorative plaque in Lobo’s former office.

    “I was really struck that in an island that still proclaims itself as revolutionary, here was a plaque to who you would have thought could easily be painted as part of the evil tyranny of capitalism and imperialism, but on the contrary was being sort of tacitly praised,” Rathbone says.



    ASSOCIATED PRESS: Fidel Castro absent as Cuban parliament opens-By WILL WEISSERT

    HAVANA — Cuba’s parliament opened one of its twice-annual sessions Sunday without its most famous member — Fidel Castro, who once again missed a chance to share the public stage with his younger brother Raul despite a string of recent appearances.
    The 83-year-old Fidel has not been seen publicly with Raul, who took over Cuba’s presidency, since he stepped down first temporarily and then permanently four years ago. He also missed a July 26 celebration of Revolution Day, despite widespread anticipation that the former leader might show up.

    The elder Castro remains a member of parliament, but his chair to the right of Raul was empty on Sunday. Cuban legislators convene twice a year and usually do little more than unanimously approve small reforms put forward by Cabinet ministries and resolutions criticizing the United States.

    Outside Cuba, debate has intensified recently over who is guiding major government policy following the sudden media blitz by Fidel — who had almost completely disappeared from public view since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. Such questions are far less common on the island, but it is not clear whether Fidel and Raul are deliberately not appearing together in order to make a statement about who is in control.

    On Friday, Fidel addressed a Communist youth meeting attended by former castaway Elian Gonzalez, who is now 16. The ex-president has also turned up everywhere from discussions with Cuba’s diplomatic corps to the dolphin show at Havana’s aquarium.

    And after many months of official photographs from his convalescence that inevitably showed him wearing multicolored track suits, Fidel Castro has taken to wearing an olive-green shirt and fatigues similar to the military uniform that was his trademark during his nearly half century in power — though the latest incarnation is devoid of military rank.

    Castro may have skipped the regular parliamentary meeting in favor of attending a special session in coming days — that he himself called — to discuss the threat of a nuclear war pitting the United States and Israel against Iran, further fueled by tensions between North and South Korea.

    In a series of essays published by state media, Castro has been suggesting for weeks that such a conflict could spark widespread global destruction, though it’s unknown if he would personally attend or not.

    Before Sunday’s parliament session began, Economy Minister Marino Murillo spoke briefly to reporters about a pilot program that has turned some state barber shops over to their employees and let them set their own prices while paying rent.

    Murillo said such projects would be extended to other sectors of the economy but did not elaborate, saying only that “we are of the belief that the state has to step back on certain activities.”

    “We can’t call them reforms. We are studying a modification of the Cuban economic model,” Murillo said. He added that officials are looking to “update the Cuban economic model, where the values of socialism come first and foremost, not the market. We will continue following centralized planning, but we will loosen up on a group of things.”–A7cKcXukzud63Z9fSivJggD9HARTV81


    “”We can’t forget that the most powerful country in the world is our enemy,” he said, referring to the United States.”

    REUTERS: Cuba says will ease state’s role in economy-By Nelson Acosta-Sun Aug 1, 2010

    * Cuban minister: Cuba “updating” not reforming economy

    * State “doesn’t have to be in charge of everything”

    * Says no to markets, private property, market socialism

    HAVANA, Aug 1 (Reuters) – The Cuban government plans to reduce its role in small businesses, but continue to direct a centralized economy that eschews markets and private property, a Cuban official said on Sunday.

    Economy Minister Marino Murillo said the communist-led island is “updating,” not reforming its fragile economy and does not plan to copy the market socialism of China or Vietnam.

    “We are of the opinion that today the state has a group of activities it must get out of. The state doesn’t have to be in charge of everything,” he said in a speech to the National Assembly.

    “The state has to be in charge of the economy, of the most important things,” Murillo said in his speech.

    He cited the example of small barber shops, where barbers have been allowed for several months to lease their chairs and charge their own prices, within limits, instead of having the state run the entire enterprise.

    That kind of change “must be extended to other services,” Murillo told the assembly at its regularly scheduled semi-annual meeting.

    Cuba has been in the grips of an economic crisis the past two years that has forced it to cut imports, freeze the Cuban bank accounts of foreign businesses on the island and hold off on paying its bills.

    Before his speech, Murillo told reporters the Cuban government is looking at ways to modernize the island’s economy, but that “one cannot speak of reform.”

    “It’s an updating of the economic model where the economic categories of socialism, not the market, will take priority,” he said.

    “It lightens a group of things of the economic model, but we are not going to hand over property,” Murillo said.

    The government, which controls 90 percent of the economy, owns most things on the Caribbean island.


    When Raul Castro replaced older brother Fidel Castro as president in 2008, there were expectations of change in one of the world’s last communist economies.

    Many thought that Raul Castro was less of a communist ideologue than his brother and would move toward opening the economy as communist-run China and Vietnam have done.

    Many Cubans have said they are anxious for changes that will allow them to make more money.

    They receive social benefits such as free medical care and subsidized food rations, but the average monthly salary is equivalent to $18.

    Raul Castro, 79, has tweaked the system with such things as allowing barbers and taxi drivers to function more like small businesses, but thus far avoided major changes.

    When asked by reporters about the possibility Chinese or Vietnamese-style changes, Murillo said, “I think the Cuban model is a very Cuban model. We cannot copy what many people in the world do.”

    “We can’t forget that the most powerful country in the world is our enemy,” he said, referring to the United States.

    The United States and Cuba have had hostile relations since the 1959 Cuban revolution that put Fidel Castro in power and transformed the island into a communist state.

    The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba for 48 years, which the Cuban government blames for many of its economic woes.

    Raul Castro was set to speak later in the day to the National Assembly session.

    Fidel Castro, 83, is a member of the assembly, but did not attend Sunday’s session. His chair, which is next to his brothers, has been empty since he fell ill in July 2006.

    (Editing by Jeff Franks and Eric Beech)


    SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Cuban pianist Rodriguez follows dreams to U.S.-Lee Hildebrand, Friday, July 30, 2010

    Alfredo Rodriguez Jr. was faced with making a life-changing decision in January 2009: He could either remain in his native Cuba and complete his senior year at the Classical University of Havana or risk arrest by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to get to Hollywood and record for Quincy Jones.

    Rodriguez, perhaps the most talked-about young pianist on the international jazz scene, chose the latter and became the first jazz artist to be signed by the hit-making producer in 16 years.

    Rodriguez had been studying classical piano since he was 7. Graduating from college with a degree in music “was one of my goals when I was in Cuba,” Rodriguez, 24, says by phone from his Southern California apartment. “At the same time, I had to be here as soon as possible. When Quincy is telling somebody, ‘I want to work with you,’ you kind of have to do it.”

    “Sounds of Space,” Rodriguez’s premiere CD, will be released in the fall by Jones’ Qwest label. Although Jones shares producers’ credits with the pianist, most of the tracks were produced by Rodriguez in Havana before he defected to the United States.

    Performing with Dad
    The pianist had been performing with his father, Cuban singer-songwriter Alfredo Rodriguez Sr., at a music festival in Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula when he made his move. Because of a treaty between Cuba and Mexico, he could be stopped at the border by Mexican authorities and deported to Cuba, where he probably would be imprisoned.

    He did not hide his plans from his father.

    “He approved that,” the pianist says in broken English. “Not just him. My family, definitely. What they teach me always in my life is I have to pursue my dreams. They give me space to leave, and I really appreciate that. Every people have their own work, and I definitely knew my work was not in Cuba.

    “At the same time,” he adds, “Cuba is the best country for me because I am from there and I learned from there. It’s my roots and my friends and my family.”

    Rodriguez flew from Merida to the border city Nuevo Laredo. He says he was detained at the airport by Mexican police and asked for money to continue his journey. “They are really corrupt,” he says. He refused to pay and instead told them “why I wanted to go to the United States and what is my dream, the music, my career and all this stuff.”

    Truth prevails
    “After three hours of conversation,” he says, “they understood me. They put me in a cab, and they sent me to the border. They told me, ‘Because you told the truth, you can do your dream.’ ”

    Although he had not performed in the United States before his defection because of visa restrictions imposed by the George W. Bush administration, which have been relaxed somewhat since President Obama took office, the pianist had played jazz in Europe. He met Jones five years ago in Switzerland at the home of Montreux Jazz Festival producer Claude Nobs.

    “I play one song for him, and he told me right away that he wanted to produce me,” Rodriguez says of Jones. Also present were Herbie Hancock and Michel Legrand.

    First heard jazz at 14
    Rodriguez, who had been trained in European classical and Cuban piano music, first heard jazz when he was 14. An uncle gave him a CD of “The Koln Concert,” Keith Jarrett’s hugely popular 1975 solo piano recording.

    “It was great for me to know some people just sit down at the piano and just play whatever they feel,” he says. “That was a new way for me.”

    Rodriguez’s virtuosic, frequently percussive keyboard approach reflects a wide diversity of influences. Besides Jarrett, they include jazz pianists Hancock, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Thelonious Monk; classical composers Bach, Beethoven, Ravel and Stravinsky; and Cuban pianists Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecouna.

    “Some people just start to hear what is happening at the moment, and they forget what happened in the ’30s and the ’50s,” Rodriguez says. “I love the old pianists.”

    Rodriguez composed all 11 songs on “Sounds of Space.” Two are solo piano pieces, and seven are performed by his former Cuban trio, augmented on five by woodwinds. Two feature his current American rhythm section – Bulgarian-born bassist Peter Skavov and Cuban drummer Francisco Mela, a longtime U.S. resident noted for his work with Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, John Scofield and others. The current trio toured Europe in July, playing the Montreux and North Sea jazz festivals and Ronnie Scott’s club in London, and will appear Tuesday and Wednesday at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. When not touring with the group, Rodriguez attends Santa Monica College, where he is working on improving his English.

    “I’m really excited about this trio,” he says. “I have a Cuban drummer, but with the approach of real jazz. Some people know so good the Cuban music and the Latin music and the African music, but they don’t know exactly how to play the swing and play songs by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. And I love the Bulgarian culture. He (Skavov) has been in New York with a lot of Cuban people, and he knows a lot about the Cuban music, in his way.

    A new sound
    “What I’m trying to find is a new sound with the trio. I’m from Cuba, and, of course, I’m going to defend my roots all the time, but at the same time, I’m trying to find a new way to defend it.” {sbox}

    Alfredo Rodriguez Trio: 8 and 10 p.m. Tues.-Wed. $10-$18. Yoshi’s, 1330 Fillmore St., S.F. (415) 655-5600.

  9. The documentary by David Schendel called, Yank Tanks – “Carros Classicos de Cuba”, does an extraordinary job of conveying the true sense of adoration Cubans have for these automobiles; partly born out of pure necessity and partly because the cars are just so darn cool. They maintain them as if the machines are museums.

  10. The old cars running are a magnificent example of ingenuity, hardwork and perseverance. Against all odds, these private enterpreneurs keep their business running.

    Maybe the Cuban Parlamentarians meeting this weekend should appoint these drivers to Ministries positions and I am sure they will get the country out of the “junk yard”.

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