They Don’t Know Desi in Cuba

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Our Cuban tour guide warned us upon arrival last Tuesday that no one in Cuba ever heard of Desi Arnaz, or his alter ego Ricky Ricardo. Arnaz left Cuba in 1934 and became famous in the United States a decade later. That somewhat disappointing piece of information was one of many misconceptions Americans have about Cuba.

The Chevy that the “I Love Lucy” show made so famous in the ’50s is one of an estimated 60,000 pre-1960 American cars now in use in Cuba. Other than some newer models infiltrating from Europe and South America, Cuba looks like a movie set with 50-year-old Chryslers, Plymouths, and Chevys lining the streets. Most of them have been repaired with Asian parts. Don’t look too closely. They are being held together in creative makeshift ways.

Americans believe that Cubans love old American cars. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cubans love new American cars, but they can’t get their hands on them. Shortly after the 1959 revolution, American automobile manufacturers were forced to stop selling to Cuba in order to conform to the embargo established by the United States. It has never been lifted.

The vintages cars, known as cacharros (translation: pieces of junk), sell in Cuba for around $10,000. You are basically buying a piece of tin for that money because the inner workings all have to be repaired. Our tour guides arranged transportation for us a few times in these precious beauties. Fortunately, a government agency or a private concern reconditioned the ones we rode in. They still lacked the safety and stability we are used to.

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