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PURE CUBA: Reporter's notebook 4, "luchando" in Cuba

Apr 14, 2016

Many cars in Cuba are in a poor state of repair.
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Resourceful does not even begin to describe Cubans.  There is not enough of anything in Cuba – food, money, freedom.  So they make the most of what they have.  They call it “luchando,” which means fighting the good fight, managing despite long odds.

Individual Cubans can sell you just about anything more cheaply than the Cuban government can.

For example, if you change your U.S. dollars at a government exchange center, you may get .86 Cuban dollars in return.  Cubans, however, get a 1:1 exchange.  So anything they get from the exchange is pure profit.  The family that rented us our casa particular gave us a 1 : .90 exchange rate. We could have gotten better had we enough time to seek out the friend of the friend of the friend we’d been told to contact.

The daughter of the woman who rented us our apartment says she can give me a good price for a box of cigars.

And just about anyone who has a car will use it as a taxi for hire if they have the chance. 

Creative vehicle maintenance abounds

The U.S. embargo makes getting American cars impossible, and it makes getting parts for Cuba’s classic cars of the 1940s and 50s extremely difficult.  If you want to maintain your ’58 Pontiac with original after-market parts, you’ll generally need to know someone in the U.S. who can buy the parts, send them to someone you know in Mexico, who then sends them to you. Even if you have a friend buy the needed part in Miami and bring it over in their luggage, it’s prohibitively costly for the average Cuban. 

So you make do.  On the outside, many of the cars look reasonably original, except for the occasional bad paint job, using flat building paint.  On the inside?  Oy.  We have been driven by a taxi driver in a 1953 Pontiac that had a new Nissan engine and transmission in it.  Some cars, the ones spewing huge clouds of black smoke into the air, have marine diesel engines in them. 

Unless you use only the government-owned taxi fleets with new Hyundai or Kia vehicles, you will be breathing more exhaust inside many of these ancient cars than you do when you’re on the street, as it tends to billow inside from the engine compartment. 

Cuban researchers have developed a lung cancer vaccine, which a U.S. company is planning to test. 

I’m thinking after my trip to Havana, I may need that vaccine.

A non-Cuban cannot own a property in Cuba.  Or can they?

The law prohibiting someone from using their car as a taxi without a license is unclear.  It’s probably illegal. But the only place a Cuban is certain to get nabbed is at the airport, where police keep a lookout for illegal transportation of tourists. 

But in Havana, many a college student uses his Pa’s car to pick up tourists to make spending money.

The law prohibiting foreign ownership of assets in Cuba is quite clear.  After all, the revolution happened in very large part because the Batista government, a tiny slice of rich Cubans, and wealthy foreigners owned almost everything, leaving the majority of people to suffer poverty and despair.

In reality, there are ways around the law.  Cuban entrepreneurs are striking deals with Westerners who front the money for a house or apartment.  The property is in the Cuban’s name, the parties split the proceeds from rents, and the Westerner has a lovely place to stay in Cuba during vacations.

The daughter of the woman renting us our apartment says she hasn’t heard of an American doing this.  That’s good, as I suspect it would be extremely unwise.  The U.S. rules for travel in Cuba have been relaxed, but the embargo is still in place.  I’d be willing to bet many boxes of Cuban cigars that the U.S. government would impose a spectacular fine on an American caught buying property in Cuba on the black market.

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton and Mercedes Mejia are in Cuba this week to cover the connections between Cuba and Michigan and opportunities for the future. You can find more of their stories here.