Top Gear meets the cars of Cuba
For decades, Cuba has made do with old Yank tanks. Now it’s finally opening its doors to shiny new stuff
Posted: 12 Dec 2013
When Castro seized power, new cars suddenly began to arrive. Cuban taxis are Russian Ladas, Moskvichs and Volgas from as far back as the Sixties. But I also spot Polskis, ancient Polish-made versions of Fiats, without the ‘good' bits. All these former Eastern Bloc fossils run on a noxious blend of fossil fuel that farts out a gritty stench of poverty. You can taste the dinosaurs in it.
Looking carefully, over the potholes and past the stray cats and housewives gossiping over cigarillos, I notice that the first modern cars are beginning to arrive. First, there are the Chinese-built Geelys, Cherys, Saic Wulings, Zhongxings and Great Walls. Then, later that day, the hated imperialist West turns the corner. An Audi A4! A BMW 5-Series! There's even a rumour that someone - nobody knows who, or if they do, they're not saying - owns a Bentley Continental. A Bentley in Cuba! Que pasa?
Cuba is changing. For years, the country has relied on ideological fellow travellers to keep it going. First the USSR. Now Venezuela, which supplies $5bn of oil each year in return for doctors and security personnel. But, with Venezuela's economy slumping, no one knows how long this deal will last. So, reluctantly, the old comrades are introducing reforms to kickstart the economy.
Cubans can now buy and sell all manner of goods and services that were once tightly controlled by the state and can become - whisper it - capitalists. The ancient Moskvich estate I'm travelling in is a big part of the story.
The driver, Jorge Arias, bought the car for $20,000, becoming one of the first of a new breed of auto-entrepreneurs. "The government used to decide what cars were imported, who could buy them and who could drive them. If you were a party official or had an important job like a doctor or lecturer or you were a sportsman or musician, you could get a car. But no one else."