Buying a Car in Cuba: A Veritable Odyssey

FERNANDO RAVSBERG*

Hundreds of cars idle beneath the sun while people await an explanation as to why the sale of vehicles to Cubans has been suspended since the beginning of the year. Photo: Raquel Perez
Hundreds of cars idle beneath the sun while people await an explanation as to why the sale of vehicles to Cubans has been suspended since the beginning of the year. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Since April, the Cuban government has ceased selling automobiles to Cuban citizens authorized to purchase these, thus eliminating the only mechanism through which Cubans could acquire a modern used vehicle put out of circulation by the country’s car rental agencies.

Buying a car in Cuba entails complex, cumbersome and expensive bureaucratic process. It is a veritable odyssey which begins with “The Permit”, a document issued by the government which authorizes the dealer to sell the buyer a vehicle with 100 thousand (or more) kilometers of mileage.

To obtain “The Permit”, a Cuban must offer proof that he’s had enough of an income, in hard currency, to be able to afford the car and must secure another letter from the bank which certifies this. However, farmers, the self-employed and most medical doctors are not entitled to purchase a car, even if they can offer proof of financial solvency.

To cover up all potential loopholes, authorities have devised a whole series of different license plates and created watertight markets where, for instance, a diplomat is not permitted to sell their car to a journalist, the latter is forbidden from selling theirs to a foreign firm and neither of them is authorized to sell to a Cuban.

Why Can’t Cubans Buy Cars?

Thousands of Cubans – musicians, merchant navy officers, diplomats, artists and others – who have “The Permit” are very worried over the government’s decision to stop selling cars. Their worries stem from the fact the document has a 2-year bureaucratic half-life.

Singer-songwriter Erik Sanchez is among those worried. He tells me he will have to start the whole process over because his Permit is “number 1088 and it’s already a year and a bit old, expiring on February 1, 2014. They haven’t been selling anything since April 27 and they’re not saying why.”

Car dealerships based in Cuba await the day in which all Cubans will be allowed to purchase automobiles. Photo: Raquel Perez
Car dealerships based in Cuba await the day in which all Cubans will be allowed to purchase automobiles. Photo: Raquel Perez

It is hard for Sanchez to believe it, but he is among the privileged: he already has the document. Daniel Silva tells us the story about how a “prominent scientist” submitted the application a year ago and has not yet received his “Permit”, despite the fact that “the Ministry of Transportation had to issue it within 60 working days.”

No one seems to have an answer for art curator Jorge Gomez, who asks: “Why can’t Cubans go to a dealership and buy a car, be it new or second-hand? Why do we need permits, letters, absurd and unnecessary documents issued by bureaucrats who do own cars?”

Some Do, Some Don’t

For decades, Cubans had access to cars only if they earned the privilege through extraordinary merit or if the vehicle came with the job. The sale of automobiles was forbidden and such transactions were carried out as a verbal agreement, without officially changing any paperwork.

Raul Castro’s government authorized the sale and purchase of cars by Cubans, a measure which served to legalize the transactions which were common during the years when this was prohibited. The government, however, maintained all other restrictions and even introduced new ones. This is such a sensitive issue that, two years ago, the Minister of Transportation was dismissed from his post in connection with it.

Why a salsa musician should be entitled to “The Permit” and a farmer be denied one, even when they can demonstrate they have a greater, legal income, remains a mystery, as does the fact that foreigners residing on the island can only purchase 2 vehicles during the time of their stay, be that 1 month or 50 years.

The government also forbids direct transactions among foreigners, journalists, Cuban or foreign firms, such that the same vehicle can be sold at prices that can range from US $4,000 to $30,000, depending on the market in which it is sold.

Restrictions on the purchase of automobiles force many Cubans to overhaul their vehicles. Photo: Raquel Perez.
Restrictions on the purchase of automobiles force many Cubans to overhaul their vehicles. Photo: Raquel Perez.

It’s No Joke

The whole matter has been made light of by humorist Luis Silva, who wrote an invitation to his Permit’s birthday party. He didn’t have to put much effort into it: he merely described a surreal situation which need not be exaggerated much to make Cubans laugh.

The delay has to do with the fact that there are thousands of “Permits” and only 200 cars were being made available every week. In addition, some people got ahead of the line with US $500 dollar tips, made to dealership employees. Now, the problem has really been solved: no vehicles are being sold to anyone.

Those who were fortunate enough to have been able to purchase a late model used car before this and still have some money left over generally “overhaul” the vehicle. With around US $4,000, you get a diesel engine in good condition directly from a State company, and with a US $1,000 tip, you can get a brand-new engine, without having to wait in line for it.

Peugeot, Mercedes Benz and Fiat dealerships based in Cuba patiently await the day in which all Cubans will be entitled to purchase their vehicles. For the time being, they are only allowed to sell to State and foreign companies and some “very special” individuals who have official authorization.

Cuba’s automotive market continues to be a chaotic place, plagued by black market deals, illicit activities, corruption, injustice, inequality among citizens and speculation – the results one would expect from so many unexplained and inexplicable prohibitions.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.



6 thoughts on “Buying a Car in Cuba: A Veritable Odyssey

  • Oh dear. You should seriously consider getting a better translator.

    I don’t think “half life” means what you think it means. If the half life of something is in two years, that means that it is halfway extinct in two years, and then half of that in another two years, and on and on…

    If “The Permit” is a document which authorizes the dealer to sell to the buyer, why does the buyer need to worry about it? I think you got that confused. And why is “the Permit” capitalized and in quotes? Is this some kind of Cuban euphemism? A permit is a permit. No need to give it quotation marks, nor the privileges of a proper noun.

    Transitioning from paper to an online format seemed to have saved journalism, yet the quality has declined so much that I might as well be reading someone’s blog.

    Reply
    • The author’s use of capitalization in “The Permit” demonstrates the all-powerful nature of the Cuban bureaucracy, which is the central point of his essay. It’s a shame you missed that.

      Reply
      • Perhaps he didn’t 😉

        Reply
  • “The government also forbids direct transactions among foreigners, journalists, Cuban or foreign firms, such that the same vehicle can be sold at prices that can range from US $4,000 to $30,000, depending on the market in which it is sold.”

    Well that explains why it’s now exceedingly difficult for an ordinary Cuban to buy a car. Anybody with a car to sell will far rather try to find a way to sell it in the $30,000 market than in the $4000 market.

    Seriously, the geniuses running Cuba must work very hard coming up with new and exciting ways like this to totally screw up the economy!

    Reply
  • Could the reason the government car rental agencies are no longer selling their used cars actually be as simple as the fact they have no money to buy new cars to replace them?

    Reply
  • what if a foreigner imported a bunch of cars?

    Reply

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