|Newly obtainable: a Chery QQ in Havana.|
Some observers believe this change, part of reforms promised by the government in April, will hasten the disappearance of the island's vast fleet of Packards, Studebakers and other rolling relics. Proclaimed Britain's The Independent newspaper: "For the bangers of Havana, it's the end of the road."
Hardly. The old cars — many battered, some pristine — will soldier on in Cuba. Here's why.
1. No cash for even clunkers. The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $20 U.S. a month. That won't buy a tank of gasoline, let alone a car to put it in. Remittances from relatives outside the island may help some families get wheels, but won't be enough to dramatically alter the Cuban car scene.
2. Show me your papers. Decree 292, the law permitting title transfers for used vehicles, has 16 pages of provisions, including a requirement for a sworn declaration that the money to buy the vehicle was made legally. That will dissuade many potential buyers. Obtaining a brand new vehicle is even more complicated. Citizens can buy only one new car every five years, and only from state distributors. And they must be able to prove that the money came from work for a state institution.
3. Thanks, but I have one. Those willing to evade Cuba's rules and regulations have long had access to a busy black market for vehicles left behind by foreign workers, and the Eastern Bloc cars that favoured state employees could buy before 1990. Some might use the new law to make their transactions legal, if they can unravel the long ownership trails. And if they are willing to pay the four-per-cent sales tax Cuba will impose on both buyer and seller.
4. The supply trickle. Cars are not coming in by the boatload. That U.S. trade embargo is one reason for this. The economy is another.
5. Oldies but goodies. The Independent, the same newspaper that predicted the coming demise of Cuba's vintage fleet, refers to the struggle between Cuban mechanics and the "built-in obsolescence" of their American machines. Sorry, blokes, but you must be thinking of British Leyland. The newest of the pre-revolution cars is more than 50 years old. Working with the solid foundation of the Yank tanks, Cuban have learned to repair, fabricate and adapt as needed to keep them running indefinitely. It makes me think of the gracious, grey-haired owner of a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air who told me, "The car is ... " He searched for a word. "Unbreakable." We both knew his Chevy had broken before, and would again. And we both knew exactly what he meant.