The Truth About Cuban Cars

Studebaker Hawk (probably a Flight Hawk or a Power Hawk, and possibly from 1956).
     At the website that calls itself The Truth About Cars, contributor Ronnie Schreiber reports that per capita income in pre-Castro Cuba "was one of the highest in the western hemisphere."
    Wrong-o, Ronnie. The average annual income in Cuba in the 1950s was about $500 U.S. (No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today; Medea, Collins and Scott, 1984). That trailed Venezuela and and Argentina among Latin American nations and was perhaps one-third of the figure for the United States and Canada.
    So what has this to do with cars?
    Schreiber has a hate-on for Fidel Castro's regime, and a conviction that those with more moderate views are unwitting tools of the bearded one and his buds. Or in the case of Taillight Diplomacy, a small, U.S.-based movement to support Cuba's classic car owners, witting tools, he suggests.
    "Taillight Diplomacy may appeal to our automotive and human interests but their agenda may be more political than humanitarian," writes Schreiber. "Rather than being a car club, Taillight Diplomacy is in fact a lobbying group with ties to the Cuban regime, aimed more at undermining support for the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba than on fostering ties between American and Cuban car enthusiasts."
    Hmm. Sounds a bit like KAOS. Maxwell Smart warned
us about this.
In Havana, a 1955 Pontiac Chieftain.
    To back his assertion, Schreiber throws out facts and opinions like buckshot. None of it is penetrating. The "ties to the Cuban regime" turn out to be an association with Fernando Remirez, a senior Cuban government official who spent time in Washington as head of the Cuban Interest Section  essentially, Cuba's ambassador to the U.S. It's hard to imagine how the group could function without some connection with the Cuban government.
    Schreiber says "it's not clear" how many old American cars survive in Cuba, a surprising statement when the number has long been pegged at  60,000. He takes issue with claims that Cuba is home to the world's largest collection of vintage American vehicles, noting that the U.S. itself must have more than 100,000 pre-1960 cars. No doubt that's true, but where in the U.S. do you see vast numbers of these old-timers in daily use?
    The chief reason so many old vehicles live on in Cuba, he suggests, is not the  trade embargo that prevents new U.S. cars from reaching the island, but the Cuban government's long-standing prohibition of private vehicle ownership (pre-revolution cars excluded). The full political and economic story, of course, is more complicated, but Schreiber doesn't sweat the details.
    Take his claim about per capita income in the 1950s. Not only does he torque the figure, but he fails to report that behind that average was an economy in which 20 per cent of the populace took in 50 per cent of the national income, while the bottom 20 per cent received just six per cent  (Driving Through Cuba, Gébler, 1988). That would explain how such a strong market for Cadillacs could also be so receptive to the anti-Batista factions, Castro's 26th of July movement included, that sought to establish a more equitable society.
    Ronnie Schreiber needs to look less at politics and more at cars. He needs to go to Cuba.
He's American, so it will take a bit of arranging, but when he gets there he will see the clunkers and the cream puffs, and he'll meet their owners and learn that most don't give a pinion seal about politics; they just want to keep their cars running. And like every car buff, he too will realize the importance of preserving a unique, delightful automotive treasure that stands apart from governments and political philosophies.
    He will make a fine member of Taillight Diplomacy.

Ford vs. Chevy: 1954 Customline (right) and 1953 210 in Matanzas Province.

  P.S. Schreiber's entry seems to have disappeared from The Truth About Cars, but you can still see it here.


Anonymous said…
Hi,Rob. I read the article Mr. Schreiber wrote and noticed he mentioned the "2009 PBS broadcast of American Cars of Cuba".Actually I think it was broadcast in 2001, not 2009.
By the way,I saw some photos (5 to be exact) from CubanClassics. I don't think Ralphee will be pleased if Mr. Schreiber used them without his permission!
Caristas said…
Hi Anon. You know, I wondered about that PBS documentary. Certainly explains why I couldn't remember such a broadcast in recent years. Re CubanClassics: Ralphee's fine photography is easy to recognize. Maybe this is why the article has been pulled from the site where it was first published.

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