Frank guides his pride and joy, a white 1953 Chevrolet with original red interior, to its place among the other classics at the rally. To belong to Frank’s club, one’s car must be at least 90 percent original; the vehicles parked around his Chevy are classics, including a red 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible, a 1951 Studebaker Champion and a rare convertible 1949 Buick Special.
Woodward Dream Cruisers know these anachronous autos would draw attention anywhere, but rolling down the streets of Santiago de Cuba, the parade receives a special kind of admiration. Perhaps no place outside of Motown has a love for American steel as strong as Cuba does.
In Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba, Richard Schweid thoroughly researches the Cuban relationship with the automobile. From the first Locomobile imported to the island to the arrival of Henry Ford’s Model Ts to the glorious Chevys of 1957 just before the revolution, Schweid tells the history of Cuba’s love of American cars. Interjected into this are anecdotes of his recent time spent in the country. Through these scenes, readers get a sense of the contrast of past and present-day Cuba, its colorful people and their love for cars.
Automobiles are perhaps the largest item that Fidel Castro allows Cubans to privately own. Following the Revolution of 1959, the Cuban government seized property owned by U.S. companies and citizens. In response, trade limitations with Cuba were put in place; this eventually became a full embargo of all U.S. trade, including new cars and replacement parts. Those who fled Cuba and the restrictions of communism left behind many expensive vehicles that were quickly divided up as spoils of the revolution. An estimated 60,000 of these now-classic automobiles remain on the road today, serving the everyday transportation needs of Cubans.
That so many American cars are still on the streets despite the trade embargo and a disastrous economy is a testament to the ingenuity of Cubans and their passion for the cars. Using parts from Soviet-made autos, many engines have been altered to run on diesel fuel, which is cheaper and more available than high-octane gasoline. Hay que resolver: It must be resolved, a solution must be found — this seems to be the motto of Cuban car owners and mechanics. Their solutions include using liquid detergent as brake fluid and enema bag hoses as fuel lines. One backyard mechanic created special forms for bending glass in order to reproduce the wrap-around Chevrolet windshields. Another engineered and replicated piston rings. Still others managed to improve on the original work; one shop can replace any damaged or oxidized chrome parts with longer-lasting stainless steel.
Schweid was the production manager of the Oscar-nominated documentary Balseros (rafters), which chronicles Cuban refugees’ journey to America. Affection for the Cuban people and knowledge of their culture are both apparent in the book. However, Schweid clearly avoids criticism of Castro and the government, and in a book about Cuba the absence of politics is noticeable. Only briefly does he touch on the subject through a mechanic he befriended:
Just enough room separates us from the next group of people on the beach that José feels free to expand on how profoundly and bitterly anti-government he is. Especially galling to him are the travel restrictions and the lack of any free press. He does not want any help from the state, he says, only the right to have a small business of his own in which his fortunes will depend on personal effort and not government whim.
Che’s Chevrolet is a careful recording, and history buffs will enjoy the insight into the early relationship between Detroit and Cuba. The lengths to which their Cuban counterparts must go to keep their cars on the road will amuse American auto enthusiasts. The latter, more than anyone, know the ups and downs, pleasures and frustrations of a relationship with a classic car, but the average reader of this book will not get a sense of that emotional connection, and that will keep this good book from attracting a wider audience.
Steven Renaldi is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].