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
This being Cuba, however, the rules that govern the car market are complicated and, occasionally, bonkers. Only secondhand models can be bought and sold. New ones are still reserved for the state. The Castros' private BMWs and the Audis that ferry fancy tourists and top apparatchiks around are bought direct by the government for hard currency. It's not clear whether the same goes for all the new Chinese cars, or whether these are traded for the rights for Chinese firms to prospect for oil offshore. Reserves have been discovered in the Straits of Florida.
Since new car sales are banned, none of the major global car firms, which pulled out of Cuba decades ago, plans to return. "We'd like to import from Mexico," says the Latin American boss of a major global manufacturer, "but the reforms don't go far enough. There's no guarantee the state wouldn't nationalise our operations as it has done in the past. Ask me again in another 20 years."
While it is legal for ordinary Cubans to buy and sell cars, it is illegal to set up in business as a car dealer. A Canadian of Armenian origin who settled in Cuba found out the hard way. Sarkis Yacoubian created a company importing Hyundai sedans. State security officers raided his office and took him to Havana's notorious detention centre, Villa Marista.
What's more, after years spent living in fear that the state will investigate their finances, many ordinary Cubans who buy and sell cars perfectly legally do not want to be seen to be making money doing so. When you meet sellers, most introduce themselves by first name only. The cars they buy and sell are known not by their marque or model but by their owner's first name. Ask what model is for sale, and the answer is: "Oh, it's the car that Maria drives," or "That's José's car."
It's quaint, at first. Then really annoying as you do not know what model you will be looking at until you meet Maria or José and they decide whether or not you're a government investigator. Only if they trust you will they open their ancient garage doors and show you their prized jalopy.
Still, it's time to chance it. What's for sale?