Why Does Cuba Have so Many Classic Cars?

July 2021 saw thousands marching in the streets of Cuba in anti-government protests. From Santiago to Havana, citizens of the Caribbean country voiced their anger at civil liberty restrictions, shortages of food and other basic goods, and how government leaders have allegedly mishandled the pandemic. Examine the background of recent news reports, and you may see many antique and classic cars. Why are there so many still-running classic cars in Cuba? Here’s what we know:

Citizen unrest in the Caribbean

An old American car driving in the streets of Havana, Cuba
An old American car in Havana | YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

As the world watched events unfold, Cuban Defense Minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and President Diaz-Canel Bermudez blamed the U.S. for the protests due to trade sanctions placed on the nation and said they would “do anything” to end the protests.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken disagreed, explaining that any violence during demonstrations was clearly the fault of Cuban Communist Party First Secretary Miguel Diaz-Cane. Blinken also noted that the U.S. supports and will continue to support Cuban citizens who seek a government that respects their dignity and human rights, reported CNBC.

Havana, Cuba in the 1950s

The 1950s were Havana’s heyday. A decadent and permissive playground for well-heeled American celebrities, Havana was home to the Tropicana and other pleasure domes where notables such as Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and future-president John F. Kennedy cavorted.

However, hedonistic tourists weren’t the only ones spending money in 1950s Cuba. The local middle class enjoyed the good life, too. They shopped at Woolworth’s, watched American TV shows, and marveled at Hollywood movies in grand theaters. They also purchased and drove many American-made cars. The party lasted until the end of the decade when a young revolutionary lawyer named Fidel Castro came into power, says Vanity Fair.

Car sales restricted for decades

Shortly after Castro gained control of the island nation, a U.S. embargo banned the importation of American vehicles and the parts needed to maintain them. Since that time, Cubans who opted not to buy boxy, Russian-made Ladas used whatever parts they could scrounge to keep their fancy American cars cobbled together and on the road, explains Anywhere.

In the early years of his administration, President Barack Obama loosened many restrictions previously placed on Cuba by President Dwight Eisenhower. Today, Cubans are once again allowed to buy and sell cars among themselves, and some automakers such as Audi, Mercedes, and BMW offer new cars for sale in Havana and other Cuban cities. Unfortunately, most Cubans can’t afford them, so they continue to drive classic cars whether they are in good shape or not.

First American car sold in Cuba since 1959

In 2016, Nissan’s Vice President of Global Design, Alfonso Albaisa, introduced the first American-made car to enter the Cuban car market in nearly six decades. The Cuban-born Albaisa personally visited Havana to unveil the 2017 Infiniti Q60 coupe to an audience he described as intensely curious and deeply in love with automobiles.

Will Cuba replace its classic cars with modern-made vehicles?

So far, the mechanical wizards in Cuba have managed to keep some 60,000 pre-revolution cars on the road. Many of the classic cars still around in Cuba are family heirlooms that hail from as far back as the 1930s when Havana was all about gambling, glamour, and the good life. If embargoes are fully lifted, and Cuba is once again allowed to import parts, the chances are good that Cuba’s classic cars will remain on the roads for a good while longer.

Today, visitors to Havana can take their pick of classy, classic cars in which to enjoy a guided-by-the-hour tour. However, don’t think you can buy an old classic and take it home. As Anywhere explains, there are current laws that ban any cars from leaving the island.

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