Every year, tourists flock to Cuba to see the thousands of ‘Yank Tanks’ still on the roads today
Walk the streets of Havana and you are bound to see dozens of the classic American cars that gloss the cover of almost every tourist guide. “Come to Cuba,” they urge, “trundle along the Malecón, sip mojitos in the back of a 1954 Chevrolet, gaze out at a tropical island frozen in space and time…” Nicknamed yank tanks or máquinas, there are thought to be 60,000 of these vehicles still in operation in Cuba; over a third of the total number of cars on the road. Little wonder that sightseers from all over the world are enchanted by this 50s ‘time-warp’… and yet the true significance of this culture is often blotted out.
In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US trade embargo against Cuba was formally extended to include all imports, reinforced by statute after statute over the years. This policy has made it almost impossible for Cubans to obtain replacement parts for run-down vehicles, and it is thanks to the ingenuity of mechanics that the cars have been kept going for so long. Some are held together with wire, tape, any household product available, many refitted with Soviet diesel engines; a much cheaper and more efficient option. The cars that really are done for are seldom cast into the dustbin; instead ‘parted out’, keeping others on the road while creating extra income for their owners. The resourcefulness of the system is staggering.
These botched-up automobiles seem to represent the twin pillars of innovation and hardship that have marked the post-revolutionary period in Cuba. The impressive make-do-and-mend culture they demonstrate is not self-consciously kitsch or exhibitionist, as is often suggested, but rather enforced by harsh economic policy and crippling international sanctions.
But change is in the air. After decades of hostility, the past year has seen a decisive thaw in relations between Cuba and the US. Last Wednesday, President Obama announced the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations, stating that secretary of state John Kerry would travel to the country later this summer to reopen the US embassy. Although the embargo remains in force, held fast – for now – by the iron fist of Congress, this new entente is an indisputably welcome milestone for both nations.
What will this mean for the battered vehicles that paint Cuba’s coastline so brightly? Some commentators have predicted a swarm of US dealers scooping them up for private collections, although many are sceptical about how much interest they will really gather abroad. In January, Cuban president Raúl Castro relaxed the country’s trade restrictions on imports, but the very high prices of foreign cars mean these are still out of reach for the vast majority. The most likely, immediate outcome is simply that it will become much easier for mechanics to get their hands on the right parts for a lot less money – and however visible the impact, this is hardly something for nostalgic tourists to bemoan.
The cars of Cuba stand for a great deal more than brightly coloured muses to be papped by spellbound travellers. It is dangerous to romanticise any country so much to claim that entering its borders seems like stepping back into the fifties, especially considering the memory of pre-revolutionary Havana. The so-called ‘Yank Tanks’ are a far cry from the vehicles they once were, imported from the US decades ago. They do not represent a time lag, but mobility and progression. Let’s bear this mind now that Cuba and the US may be – possibly for the first time – communicating on equal terms.