In 2009, I travelled for a month in Cuba – it was the 50th anniversary of Fidel’s revolution, symbolized by classic 50’s American cars found all over the island – symbols of style, kitsch and idealism.
Cuba’s history is diverse – African, Caribbean and Spanish cultures centred around slavery and sugar plantations. The Santeria, which combines West African religous roots with canonised Catholic deities, are still seen on the streets, luminescent in all-white robes.
Spanish conquerors led by Columbus saw the annihilation of the original Indigenous Arawak. Like most of the Caribbean Islands, Indigenous populations were largely wiped out by massacres and disease.
The revolution saw Fidel Castro take power alongside Argentine medical student, revolutionary, and international icon, Che Guevara – a kitsch unto himself, underscored by the hundreds of executions dispensed with by a signature flurry from Che’s own iconic hand.
Far from being a socialist paradise, the back blocks of Cuba proved to be increasingly impoverished. The local currency of pesos and centavos barely purchased cheap low-grade ham and plasticine cheese encased in an airy substance resembling bread.
Since the fall of Batista on New Years Day, 1959, Cuba has lingered a state in limbo. Western embargos on the small socialist island has ensured that the import of consumer goods – including cars – has been impossible.
Throughout the 1970’s, however, Cuba enjoyed prosperity. The USSR traded sugar at three times the market price for the privilege of using the island as communist satellite state. The state run economy saw enough food for all, and while the new Russian made cars were not nearly as cool as the vintage Cadillacs, at least the Cubans had new wheels to spin.
The collapse of communism in the early 1990’s saw the support of the Soviet Union withdrawn. Cuba entered what is known as the ‘special period’ – food became scarce and the economy non-existent. Cuba has since regained an economic equilibrium through tourism, mostly of whom – like myself – come to experience the last remaining years of Fidel’s socialist experiment.
Cuba is often referred to as a ‘failure’, and without the support of the USSR in the 1970’s, Fidel’s regime may have dissolved far earlier. However, should the Western embargo not been enforced – and the country allowed to trade with its geographically closer neighbours – it is possible that Cuba, as a state planned economy, may have actually succeeded.
The amount of capital that could have been collated trading sugar with the United States alone would have kept the island’s economy afloat – a matter for hypothesis, of course, which will never be proven, but worth considering.
Fidel’s Socialist Cuba has famously outlasted 9 US presidents and is slowly starting to trade with other countries. The US embargo will eventually be lifted and Chinese-made buses and cars infiltrate Havana’s streets, sadly but pragmatically replacing the old American classics.
That local Cubans are constantly fixing their old classic cars is representative of the socialist tinkering Cubans endure every decade or so. However, just every Cuban Cadillac owner is proud of their broken down classic car, they are equally proud in their broken down, classic country.
Havana is postcarded by classic American cars, remnants of the capitalist regime, the gangster decades of post-World War Two, when the island was a hub for rum, sugar and casinos.