When Fidel Castro announced he was retiring and that his younger brother would become Cuba's new president, Jay Leno speculated that Raúl's first official act would entail introducing the 1961 Ford Fairlane into the country. Leno's joke is not too far off the mark: Residents of this island nation just 90 miles from Florida have not seen an American OEM automotive import in almost 50 years — ever since the Eisenhower Administration enacted a unilateral trade embargo that President George W. Bush recently toughened.
In the meantime, Cubans have held on to their precious pre-1960s fleet; they're still routinely driving — and struggling to repair — vintage vehicles that are now coveted classics.
Auto enthusiasts on both sides of this Cold War-era ideological divide are calling for a thaw in official relations to permit importation of much-desired American components and accessories. Replacement parts are an especially dire need.
Cuba's old-car market is estimated to be worth $47 million to $87 million, according to Rick Schnitzler, founder of TailLight Diplomacy (TLD), a Philadelphia-based, bi-national policy advocacy group whose participants include the Antique Automobile Club of America, Society of Automotive Historians, Hemmings Motor News; Deposito del Automobil (an auto museum within the Havana city historian's office) and the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).
"The market potential is definitely there for our part of the industry," reports Jim Spoonhower, SEMA's liaison with TLD. "They're prime for restoration. There would be a lot of opportunity."
Although overseas OEMs have been steadily delivering late-model vehicles — such as Toyotas and Mercedes — to Cuba via Mexico, Spain and other nations, trade remains strictly off-limits for any U.S.-based firm.
"It's illegal to ship American parts down there, so they make do in MacGyver-like ways," explains Jake Colvin, executive director of the National Foreign Trade Commission's USA*Engage division. "I was in Cuba last year, and there's an absolute love for the American car scene," he says.
"The American brands are vibrant down there," agrees TLD's Schnitzler. "People smile when you say 'Buick.'"
TLD's goal is to set up a cultural exchange program resulting in face-to-face Cuban visits among fans of like-model '31 Fords, '47 Plymouths and '58 Cadillacs. "You put the owner of a '52 Ford in Cuba together with the owner of a '52 Ford in Kalamazoo — and they become families," says Schnitzler.
American auto parts purveyors can profit by helping to make this happen. "Pep Boys can sponsor it; talk about a homerun!" he observes. (Pep Boys is cited as a familiar hypothetical example by Schnitzler because he lives in Philadelphia where the company is headquartered.) "I'd love to get Jay Leno as a spokesperson; imagine getting him connected with Pep Boys."
American businesses and individuals need to make their voices heard in Washington, D.C. for any such program to become a reality, he says, because it's the bellicosity of the U.S. that keeps the trade embargo going. "The hostilities are one-way; it's from us to them," Schnitzler contends.
"The ball is in our court," concurs Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. "The issue is what's going to happen here, not in Cuba. Cuba is already open to the world," he says, referring to the country's presence in the global market. (This is borne out if you've ever lit a Cuban cigar in Niagara Falls, Canada yet been unable to bring it over the border.)
"They welcome investment from all over the world." Kirby believes American suppliers "are missing out big-time" regarding automotive sales opportunities.
"Call your Congressman," suggests Colvin. "Something as simple as a cultural exchange is difficult" as long as the embargo exists. The next president will be dealing with the situation, he adds, challenging the alleged hypocrisy of trading with China, Vietnam and other disparaged regimes while excluding Cuba. "They're going to need a new playbook for the Cuba policy."
Schnitzler decries the mainstream American media's "violent skew" of portraying Cubans as an enslaved, unhappy and desperate society, calling such stories "a complete crock . . . it's not downtrodden. There's a very pleasant vibe in the air."
However, the populace does indeed endure shortages in various consumer goods while facing assorted financial hardships inherent in a flawed and cumbersome centralized economy made more moribund by the embargo — and you certainly don't want to run afoul of Cuban authorities who tolerate no public dissent. Yet Colvin sees a more open environment emerging if U.S. tourists are permitted to freely visit.
"Americans are incredible ambassadors of freedom and opportunity to the world. U.S. policies should facilitate contact with the Cuban people instead of prohibiting it at every turn," Colvin says. "For nearly 50 years, the U.S. has been too hung up on Fidel Castro to allow for any realistic assessment of our policies. Now that Fidel is no longer at the helm, it's time to get over the Cold War and get serious about an approach to Cuba that aligns our policies with our interests."
Tourists ferrying over from the U.S. would definitely jump-start the restoration of classic cars and bring newer OEM vehicles onto the island, according to Jones. "When the Americans come you'll need inventories of spare parts," he points out.
Visiting Americans will not be taking vintage vehicles out of Cuba and shipping them back home. "It ain't gonna happen," reports Schnitzler, "and you can blame me." He cautioned the Cubans, "Do not let a single car out of there until you learn what you've got" to avoid having valuable rarities shoving-off from the island.
"Nothing in the history of the automobile has happened like what's going on in Cuba," Schnitzler explains. Even though original replacement parts are hard to come by and missing components are frequently fabricated (the Cubans have been able to "decipher and adapt"), many cars remain in near-pristine condition – there are no snow or road-salt issues and they take particular pride in their painting skills. And Cubans grasp the scope of their treasures, paying attention to the provenance of each vehicle.
"In Cuba, the entire history is known for every car," says Schnitzler. They are passed down through generations and lovingly cared for. "The car is such a magnificent possession. They're very, very important as family mementoes and they're become a representation" of the entire nation's worldwide branding as a tourist attraction. (The U.S. is the only global government that restricts traveling and commerce.)
A stunning coffee table book by Christopher P. Baker called Cuba Classics, A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles presents a collection of vivid photographs shot amid picturesque settings. For more information, visit http://www.interlinkbooks.com.
Vacationers to Cuba are able to rent various older cars, touring the countryside in '57 Chevys and the like. Somehow the government-run Grancar rental agency is able to obtain American restoration parts, "but I have no idea who they're buying them from," Schnitzler says.
The consequences of violating the U.S. embargo are severe. "You can get in trouble. I've had to pay attention to that as an issue," he notes. "I won't even bring a screwdriver into Cuba because it's against the law. But it's not against the law to talk to them."
Schnitzler makes a point to be open with the State Department about the automotive networking goals of TailLight Diplomacy. "They are not my adversaries. As an American, they work for me. I've made it my business to be visible to the U.S. government."
Establishing business contacts in Cuba usually requires someone to vouch for you. "Every U.S.-Cuba connection starts with a face-to-face meeting with people who trust each other." Canadian-based companies may be able to help, and Kirby Jones at the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association is an excellent resource, according to Schnitzler, who calls Jones "a hero of American business" with broad knowledge of all things Cuban.
The consensus among observers is that Raúl's rule in Cuba is likely to take a more pragmatic and economically focused approach rather than Fidel's charismatic revolutionary fervor. For instance, Raul has sent subtle signals such as wearing a business suit instead of the military fatigues favored by Fidel, who, by the way, remains hugely popular. Most everyone is Cuba is directly employed by the government. "There's no doubt that Fidel Castro is an institution — he's the leader most people have known in their lives," says Colvin at USA*Engage.
"There will be some movement" toward better relations with the U.S., says Jones. "I think the embargo will fall from its own weight," he adds, stressing that the American people are in the best position to apply the necessary political pressure on their elected representatives and senators.
Says Schnitzler: "The embargo policy is off the charts and stupid. The Cubans would be very willing to do business with American companies."