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Cars In Cuba

With 11 million educated citizens, Cuba is a huge, untapped automotive market.

With 11 million educated citizens, Cuba is a huge, untapped automotive market. Less than 1% of its population now own vehicles. Indeed, this single country could soak up much of the vehicle manufacturing capacity now laying fallow in the U.S. Even more fascinating is the possibility that this island nation could leapfrog the U.S. in transportation. With little existing infrastructure to protect, it could create the first truly 21st-century transportation system, one without many of the ills afflicting how Americans move today. This could be a world powered by fuel cells, integrated multi-modal systems, computer- coordinated, collaborative vehicle pooling, intelligent transportation systems, etc.

Cuba, for the last half-century, has tried to carve its own way with bold social experiments. It could do the same in transportation. Today Cuba is a world apart from the U.S. in terms of transportation. More Cubans rely on horse and buggies than automobiles. Transportation in the rural provinces is by standing on the back of an open-air truck. Bicycles are everywhere and are overwhelmingly used by commuters, not by children or sports enthusiasts. Traffic in Havana is unlike that anywhere else in the world. Charging down the streets of the capital are motorcycles with sidecars, pedicabs, 1950’s-era Detroit cars, and jelly-bean-shaped, three-wheel taxis, known as “Cocos.” 1970’s era Russian-built Ladas, Mockbuys and tiny Polish-built Fiats are also common. Illustrative of Cuba’s creative bent to mass transportation is its “Camel” bus (El Camello). Three bus bodies are welded together end-to-end in this tractor-trailer-style bus. Over 400 Cubans pack into one Camel. The ride costs one peso (four cents). The majority of the country’s vehicles are government owned. A single U.S. car dealer could sell more vehicles per year than all of Cuba now buys—about 3,000 per year. (About half of those are purchased by the MINTUR, the Ministry of Tourism.) At last estimate, the number of miles on the average car was 227,000 miles; this figure would be much higher if it included so called “antique” cars, i.e., the pre-1959 American automobiles. About 20% of the privately owned vehicles now on the streets are these American classics.

The Cuban government’s current attitude to private-car ownership is essentially: Forget it. Few citizens can get government permission to buy a car. Fewer yet can afford to actually buy one. With much of the country’s scarce, hard currency going to pay for imported oil and gas, the last thing the government wants is for more people to drive. Also discouraging casual trips is the relative high cost of gas. To fill the tank is the equivalent to two month’s salary.

On the plus side, the dearth of automobiles means there are no traffic jams. Unlike the typical American city, most of the urban landscape is not paved over with parking lots. Auto junkyards don’t exist. Virtually everything is recycled. Indeed, some 1950’s era American cars have repeatedly had many parts “creatively” replaced from other brands. After a point, the vehicle becomes a truly generic, 1950’s American automobile because so many different types of parts have been added. Aftermarket parts is about the only automotive business in the country. These parts are typically distributed and sold beneath the official-government, radar screen, however. Car dealerships do exist—intended primarily for foreigners living in Cuba, not for nationals. The least expensive new vehicle: a $5,000 Daewoo Tico from South Korea.

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