Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Autos sí, dollars no.

Tom Miller has an interesting piece in today's New York Times entitled "Old Cars in Cuba: Nurtured But Not Loved." Miller very effectively points up the disconnect between the romantic symbolism foreigners often attach to the approximately 60,000 pre-1960 American cars in Cuba and their everyday function as basic transportation. As Miller writes:

. . . [A]rt directors love to put [old American cars] on the covers of books about Cuba to evoke a melancholy feeling. Movies about Cuba like "Buena Vista Social Club" turn the jalopies into objects of nostalgia by panning lovingly over a wheel-less Chrysler here or a Plymouth stalled in traffic there. Yet to get dewy-eyed about old American cars in Cuba is to get whimsical about our trade embargo against the island.

There is a feeling abroad in the land that Cubans love old American cars. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cubans love new American cars, not old ones, but the newest ones that they can get their hands on are 45 years old.

Miller's perspective resonates with my own (admittedly limited) experience in Cuba. Most Cubans who drive apparently indestructible American autos of '50's vintage (or, for that matter, Soviet clunkers of '60's to '80's vintage, which are just as numerous in Cuba as Detroit's progeny) do so because they have little other option. Some Cubans with access to hard currency and the right connections are able to get new Japanese and European cars (indeed, I saw a Fiat dealership on the Malecon in Havana), but most have no such luck. As Miller notes, lack of access to gasoline and replacement parts is also a serious issue. I had an experience, similar to one Miller relates, in which a cab driver fueled his ancient Lada with gas from a small glass bottle just before we set out on a short trip. (Several such bottles were rolling around in the trunk, which left me a somewhat nervous passenger.)

Miller does a fairly decent job of elucidating the inextricable link between the four decade-long United States embargo on trade with Cuba and the preponderance of antique American chrome on the island. In doing so, he touches on a paradox that I've thought a lot about and struggled with since visiting Cuba. Like many others, I tend to think the embargo should be lifted: it's done little more than aggravate human suffering and exacerbate poverty, and contrary to the intentions of American policymakers it has probably helped Fidel stay in power. At the same time, however, I wonder whether the embargo has actually helped Cubans maintain their national identity and preserve their culture, both of which would face serious challenges from the U.S. absent the isolation imposed by el bloqueo. It's a tough situation, frustrating in part because keeping the embargo or lifting it both carry serious negatives.

The Times and other papers have also reported Fidel Castro's newly-announced effort to end the widespread circulation of U.S. dollars in Cuba. Given the Cuban economy's heavy dependence on American currency, this would seem a disastrous move, but we ought to wait and see what the effect will be. If nothing else, this should give convertible pesos more credibility; though officially on a par with the dollar, I sensed what might lightly be described as a lack of enthusiasm for the chavito among Cuban merchants. This might also become an important test of Fidel's authority: it'll be interesting to see whether the present regime will really be able to stamp out dollar-based commerce or whether it will merely be pushed underground. However, I'm also concerned that this - like the Bush administration's tightening of restrictions on Cuban travel and remittances - will do nothing so much as hurt individuals and families by making it more difficult for Cubans in the diaspora to provide the financial assistance on which many of their relatives on the island depend. For the second time this week, my prayers today will go out in a special way to the people of Cuba, especially for the very many families suffering on account of the political and social divisions which still afflict their nation. AMDG.


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