Sunday, February 15, 2015

56 years of Cuban Cars

Recently I had the opportunity of visiting Cuba.  Today the island of Cuba is known for many things.  These include outstanding health care and educational systems.  Cuba is also known as a nation that the government in Washington doesn’t like very much.  This dislike centers on someone by the name of Fidel Castro. 

Another striking characteristic of Cuba is the fact that there are many cars that were made in the United States more than 56 years ago.  These cars continue to transport passengers.  This blog attempts to give some perspective about why Cuba has so many of these cars.

Auto manufacturing in the USA

First, you should know that I worked in the auto manufacturing industry in this country for about 21 years.  Given this experience, I have some information about what it means to build a car.  First, we need to consider that there are perhaps a thousand parts needed to build every automobile.  Tools need to be constructed to build each one of these parts.  The investment required to tool up for manufacturing a new model car might be in the billions of dollars.  The electricity required to power up even one factory might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars every month.

Transportation workers then need to bring all these parts to the assembly plant.  Here workers assemble automobiles at the rate of about one car per minute.  If the assembly plant lacks even one part, production stops and the plant closes down until all the parts are available.  This means that if even one part is missing at the assembly plant, the auto-manufacturing corporation will begin to loose about $30,000 every minute.

After someone purchases a car we know that it needs to be maintained.  An auto repair shop might need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to have the equipment required to repair cars.  Auto mechanics need to invest tens of thousands of dollars in order to purchase the tools they will need to repair cars.

Auto repair in Africa, Asia, and Latin America

One of the most compelling facts of life that we all live with is the immense disparity of wealth that exists in the world.  Much of the rest of the world lacks the basic every day conveniences most working people have in the United States.

About forty percent of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.  There are about one billion people in the world who lack direct access to water and electricity.  Many of these same one billion people do not have enough food to eat.  The United Nations estimates that these conditions contributed to the deaths of about 30,000 children every day.

Certainly people who have an income of two dollars per day are not thinking about purchasing a car that might cost between $5,000 and $30,000.  Much of the world’s population isn’t thinking about purchasing tens of thousands of dollars worth of tools to repair cars.  Even if someone from Asia, Africa, or Latin America had the tools to repair cars, car parts would need to be imported at exorbitant prices.

Ingenious methods have been used to throughout these areas of the world to keep cars running.  An auto mechanic in this country will change spark plugs after a given number of miles.  Workers who do not have access to spark plugs might clean the contacts so the spark plugs might last indefinitely.  Cuba doesn’t have good access to anti-freeze.  The Cuban auto mechanics use a concoction made out of hair shampoo that effectively cools engines.

In large areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America only the very affluent have the resources to purchase cars.  Because most of these nations do not manufacture cars, the purchase of autos from third countries is an immense drain on already depleted economies.  

Cuban transportation

The Cuban people are well aware of all these problems.  The percentage of Cubans who can read is among the best of any nation in the world.  The Cuban infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world.

When Cuba had its revolution in 1959, the economy was not equipped to manufacture cars.  Given these enormous limitations, the Cubans have attempted to develop a transportation system that everyone has access to.  As a part of this enormous challenge Cubans have been repairing U.S. made cars for over half a century.  We should keep in mind that because of the U.S. imposed economic embargo, Cuba hasn’t been able to import replacement parts from the United States.

These are some of the facts we might consider when we think about what we confronted when leaving the hotel we stayed at in Havana.  The smell of smog from auto exhaust was in the air.  Yes, the cost of pollution control parts for autos is extremely expensive and Cuba simply doesn’t have the resources to purchase these parts.  However, we might also consider that in the city of Santiago, Chile residents have been encouraged to use gas masks when coming and going to their jobs.

So, when we look at the beautiful 56 old Cuban cars, we might consider some of the ideas in this blog.