I can’t seem to go a day without hearing someone say, “Get to Cuba before all the Americans get there.” What exactly is it that Americans will change once they get to Cuba? Or is just that there will be so many more tourists? Either way, a lot will likely change, from big things like travel restrictions being loosened to little quirks like Netflix becoming available to Cubans, but one thing that comes to mind is that for which Cuba has become inextricably linked to (besides rum): classic old American automobiles.
The Caribbean region is getting a lot attention recently for its efforts towards energy security by decreasing fuel imports through increased renewable energy production. A recent focus of the newly merged Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room is just this, working with Caribbean nations to achieve sustainability, working with the islands as test cases for what is possible. But what about the biggest island of them all?
Because of sanctions put in place long before I was born (1961), all the American cars sold in Cuba, favored in some part because of its proximity to the U.S., have since been left there without any ability to get new parts or new models. But is Cuba really just filled with nothing but these classy cars? What do we know about Cuba’s transport landscape today?
The data is spotty to say the least, but here are two stunners:
- Cuba sold 50 cars and four motorcycles in the first six months of 2014, according to Reuters. And even more surprising: that’s actually a record. Only in 2014 were dealers allowed to sell vehicles, and it was only in 2011 that Cubans were allowed to buy and sell cars to each other.
- With these restrictions, it is perhaps no surprise that most cars are indeed American oldies, as well as Soviet-provided Ladas from before 1991.
As the (unfortunately dated) figure below shows, Cuba’s estimated car ownership is quite low, and no wonder given the restrictions. However, perhaps more surprising is that it’s not the lowest.
I know, it’s probably not a major priority in the realm of changes coming to Cuba, but I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see a “cash for classy clunkers” program come online once the blockade is lifted. In a prescient 2004 article for Transport Policy, researchers outlined what might happen to Cuba’s transport fleet should the blockade be lifted: they expect a double-to-tripling of tourism traffic, cruise ship congestion, and an urgent need for parking enforcement. In today's changing political context, it will be interesting to see how Cuba’s iconic fleet moves on.