To Have or Not To Have a Car / Fernando Damaso

Above: Two men repair a car from the former USSR.

In any country, the acquisition of a car, whether new or used, usually represents a reason for the new owner’s satisfaction.  In Cuba, if acquiring a vehicle demands overcoming numerous obstacles, keeping it functioning requires overcoming many more.

In the first place, new cars can only be gotten if the State grants the right, generally to functionaries of political and governmental agencies, armed forces officers, some professionals (above all from the health sector after completing missions abroad), artists (mainly musicians), some intellectuals and high performance athletes with relevant results in international events.  In all cases, demonstrated loyalty to governmental ideology and politics is an indispensable requisite.

In the second place, the decree that authorizes the purchase and sale of vehicles between citizens — something that was already done in an illegal manner — refers only to those in use for several years.  We are talking about those that have traveled our deteriorated roads and avenues for a long time: vehicles from the ’40s and ’50s, the first known as “almendrones” (from the word for “almond”) mostly of American make, some German and Italian, and the ones built in the formerly socialist camp, largely the extinct Soviet Union and Poland.  In recent years, although in reduced quantities, vehicles from Japan, South Korea, Germany, Brazil and lastly China have been added.

The owner of a vehicle must confront various problems, one of the most important being the acquisition of fuel: he must pay 1.20 CUC in convertible pesos for each liter for regular gasoline and 1.40 CUC for higher octane.  This represents, in the first case, two days’ salary in national currency (29 Cuban pesos, or CUP), and in the second, more than two days’ (33 CUP), based on an average monthly salary of 440 CUP.

The next problem refers to the oils and lubricants, missing in the garages that offer scrubbing and lubricating service in national currency, requiring the car owner to get them in CUC, at elevated prices, in the convertible pesos garages, or in CUC or CUP at a lower price on the black market.

Nevertheless, these problems are trifles compared to those involved in confronting repairs and the acquisition of replacement parts, tires and batteries.  The majority of state mechanic shops disappeared, and individuals not yet authorized, the repairs must be resolved with private mechanics, who are able to work on state premises devoid of equipment (by arrangement with the appropriate administrator), at his home, at that of the car owner, using his own tools and, sometimes, even those of the client.

The prices, as is to be expected, are arranged directly between the mechanic and the car owner, usually being elevated, as much in CUC as in CUP.  The main replacement parts, almost always missing from the state stores, must be gotten on the black market.  Customarily, near the state stores, the presence of the citizens equipped with cell phones that, before any solicitation, immediately locate the searched-for piece or accessory.

In the state stores, depending on the type of vehicle, a tire may cost between 89 and 155 CUC (five or eight months’ average salary) and a battery between 90 and 175 CUC (the average salary of almost five to nine months).  On the black market tires can be acquired for 60-80 CUC and batteries for 90-110.

It seems, although it may not be the intention, that the State, with its elevated sale prices for citizens, stimulates the the existence of the illegality, especially when all or most of these items come from the “misappropriation of resources” and theft from the state stores and warehouses.

And best not to address the issue of sheet metal and paint, because these services, more than the cost of the materials (sheet metal, acetylene, welder, paints, thinners, etc) reach astronomical figures, on the order of hundreds of CUC.

The decision about having or not having a car in Cuba demands a lot of reflection: although it resolves a problem of scarce public transportation and represents freedom of movement, it constitutes too heavy a burden for any pocket and the psyche of the happy (?) owner.

From Diario de Cuba.

23 October 2013

Translated by mlk