Latin America
3:16 pm
Mon October 31, 2011

In Cuba, A Used Car Is No Bargain

Originally published on Mon October 31, 2011 5:51 pm

What may be the most expensive Honda Civic in the world can be found in Havana. There's nothing especially luxurious about the car: It's a red 2005 model, with 60,000 miles on the odometer.

But what is special about this Civic is that there are few like it on the supply side of Cuba's used car market. And that's why Acela Claro says she's had plenty of interest, even though she's offering it for $65,000.

"I've been getting calls and emails from as far away as Madrid," Claro says. She adds that the inquiries are coming from Cubans as well as foreigners on the island who want a newer car.

Until a few weeks ago, there was no way to legally transfer ownership of a vehicle like this. The only cars that could be freely bought and sold were those built before 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power. That's why there are still nearly 60,000 classic cars on Cuba's streets, but few late-model Hondas. Bringing in a new car requires special government permission and a 100 percent import tax, but Claro still says the U.S. embargo is the reason she's asking so much.

"Our country is so blockaded that we can't just bring in anything we want," Claro says. "That's why a car like this doesn't cost the same as it would [in the United States]."

The Cuban government has long treated car ownership as a privilege and a reward, not a right. Doctors, military officers and exemplary workers got the chance to buy one from the state, often at subsidized prices.

But since Cubans couldn't legally sell their vehicles, they learned to do everything possible to keep them on the road.

Nelson Ramos, a car enthusiast and former economist in Havana, says cars in Cuba are "like members of the family."

"Cars stay in the family forever. And you take care of the car, you fix the engine, and we probably have the best mechanics in the world," Ramos says. "This is probably the only country in the world where you don't have a junkyard for cars. We simply get the wreckage and put it on wheels and drive it again."

There's always been a black market for used cars in Cuba, and even now, the best way to find vehicles is though illegal brokers or by going online.

Over slow dial-up Internet connections, Cubans who know how get around government censors can shop on Craigslist-style classified sites like Revolico or Cubisima. The prices are stunning. A 2006 Hyundai Accent is priced at $40,000. A 1993 Volkswagen Jetta, $20,000. In a country where the average wage is still around $20 a month, only Cubans with relatives abroad or lucrative private businesses can pay such a fortune. But they do.

Waiting for passengers outside the Havana bus terminal, cab driver Pedro Cantero shows off the green Russian Lada his father was allowed to purchase in 1980 as a reward for cutting so much sugar cane. Cantero says the battered sedan is still worth nearly $10,000 today in Cuba, even more than when it first rolled off the Soviet assembly line.

"We're happy about the new change, because it removes an unnecessary restriction," Cantero says. "I'm going to take better care of the car knowing I can sell it if I need to."

But before any car owners in the U.S. start calculating what their used vehicles might sell for in Cuba, they should keep in mind that between the U.S. embargo and Cuba's own restrictions, neither government would allow it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

If you want to buy or sell a used car in Cuba, there's good news and bad news. The good news is you can finally do it. After decades of strict regulation, Cuba's communist government recently relaxed some of its rules on car sales. The bad news, for the buyer at least, is this: The car will cost a lot. From Havana, Nick Miroff explains.

NICK MIROFF: This may be the most expensive Honda Civic in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ALARM AND IGNITION)

MIROFF: There's nothing especially luxurious about it. It's red, a 2005 model with 60,000 miles on the odometer. But what's special about this Civic is that there are few like it on the supply side of Cuba's used car market, which is why Acela Claro says she's had plenty of interest, even though she's offering it for $65,000.

ACELA CLARO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: I've been getting calls and emails from as far away as Madrid, Claro said, from Cubans as well as foreigners who want a newer car on the island. Up until a few weeks ago, there was no way to legally transfer ownership of a vehicle like this. The only cars that could be freely bought and sold were those built before 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power. That's why there are still nearly 60,000 classic cars on Cuba's streets, but few late-model Hondas.

Bringing in a new car requires special government permission and 100 percent import tax, but Claro still says the U.S. embargo is the reason she's asking so much.

CLARO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Our country is so blockaded that we can't just bring in anything we want, Claro said, that's why a car like this doesn't cost the same as it would in your country.

CLARO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The Cuban government has long treated car ownership as a privilege and a reward, not a right. Doctors, military officers and exemplary workers got the chance to buy one from the state, often at subsidized prices. But since Cubans couldn't legally sell their vehicles, they learned to do everything possible to keep them on the road. Nelson Ramos is a car enthusiast and former economist in Havana.

NELSON RAMOS: Cars in Cuba are like member of the family. So you keep the - the cars stay in the family forever. And you take care of the car, you fix the engine. And we have probably the best mechanics in the world. This is probably the only country in the world where we don't have a junkyard for cars. We simply - you got the wreckage and we put on wheels and we drive it again.

MIROFF: There's always been a black market for used cars here. And even now, the best way to find vehicles is though illegal brokers or by going online.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERNET DIALUP)

MIROFF: Over slow dial-up Internet connections, Cubans who know how get around government censors can shop on Craigslist-style classified sites like revolico.com or Cubisima. The prices are stunning. A 2006 Hyundai Accent costs $40,000, a 1993 Volkswagen Jetta, $20,000. In a country where the average wage is still around $20 a month, only Cubans with relatives abroad or lucrative private businesses can pay such a fortune, but they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN IGNITION)

MIROFF: Waiting for passengers outside the Havana bus terminal, cab driver Pedro Cantero shows off the green Russian Lada his father was allowed to purchase in 1980 as a reward for cutting so much sugar cane. Cantero says the battered sedan is still worth nearly $10,000 today in Cuba, even more than when it first rolled off the Soviet assembly line.

PEDRO CANTERO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We're happy about the new change because it removes an unnecessary restriction, Cantero said. I'm going to take better care of the car knowing I can sell it if I need to.

Before any car owners in the U.S. start calculating what their used vehicle might sell for in Cuba, they should keep in mind that between the U.S. embargo and Cuba's own restrictions, neither government would allow it. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.