Most western travellers visiting Cuba will have come across the island’s cars long before their plane lands. They appear in every travel guide, and you can buy calendars and posters of the 1950s classics that still drive through the streets of Havana.
They’ve become an icon of the island – considered a quaint, unmissable feature of Cuba’s unique atmosphere. So, it was against a background of nostalgia that the news broke that they may at last be retired. It was portrayed almost as a saddening shame that these majestic beasts of the road might disappear.
This is patronising nonsense. As the experience of the rest of the world shows, if Cubans had the choice they would have abandoned their clapped-out Studebakers and Oldsmobiles long ago. The only reason they didn’t is that the communist dictatorship that rules them did not allow it.
In a classic example of some being more equal than others, only senior party officials and a smattering of celebrities deemed of use to the party have been allowed to buy new vehicles from abroad over the past 60 years.
The motor museum driving Cuba’s roads each day might seem quaint to tourists, who can go back to their air-conditioned, reliable and safe modern cars when their holiday is over – in reality the sight is a symptom of the way in which dictatorship runs down the lives of those forced to labour beneath it.
The tourist attitude is a form of rubbernecking at misfortune, of the type that has commonly become unacceptable in decent society. While our Victorian ancestors thought it quaint to set up villages of what they considered to be primitive Africans at shows in Britain, today we rightly act to end the misery of poverty instead of gawping at it. Somehow Cuba has managed to escape that trend. While Iran and North Korea are seen for what they really are, the last outpost of dictatorship in the Americas is let off lightly, all Buena Vista Social Club tracks, mojitos and sun-soaked beaches.
Maybe it’s that the cars, along with the island’s music, are a leftover from what is to the west a vanished age of style and romance. Maybe it’s simply part of the wider fashion for excusing the actions of the Castro regime, hand in hand with the incongruous sight of western liberals wearing T-shirts of the racist and murderer Che Guevara.
Whatever the cause, it’s deeply distasteful that we prefer to admire old cars than consider the system that led to their survival – extensive censorship of the media, vast police surveillance, near-total restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, arbitrary arrest and torture of journalists and dissidents. There is a good reason why large numbers of Cubans have fled to the US in recent decades, and why people still take the desperate measure of cobbling together rafts and trying to float across the Caribbean, risking their lives to be free.
Raúl Castro’s relaxation of the rules on car imports is only a baby step towards true freedom in Cuba, of course. For a start, the state still imposes huge taxes on car imports, leading to Peugeot 508s going on sale for $262,000 under the new rules. But it’s a start. Once a little freedom is let into a society, inevitably people demand more.
As ever, communist autocrats struggle to let go. After 60 years, it will take a long time to unravel the oppressive web of permits, snoopers, secret policemen and torturers that propped up Fidel and now prop up his brother.
As the icons of that age, the cars, fall by the wayside, the rest, one must hope, will follow.