Cubans Comment on Car Prices

Fernando Ravsberg*

The announced automobile prices have done away with the aspirations of Cubans who dreamed of owning a car.
The announced automobile prices have done away with the aspirations of Cubans who dreamed of owning a car.

HAVANA TIMES — “Car prices have brought about what Yoani Sanchez, Guillermo Fariñas, the Ladies in White, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Regan and the Bushes were unable to accomplish,” Cuban journalist Javier Ortiz wrote in his blog.

He added that “the price of the Peugeot 508 has led to a unanimous consensus” that could prove useful to those who “seek ways to bring the revolution down.” No doubt, as Ortiz points out, never before had a reform met with so much condemnation.

It is the one case in which having maintained a restriction would have spelled a less significant political cost. With all its shortcomings, the “letter” system at least offered tens of thousands of Cuban professionals who worked in brigades abroad the hope of purchasing a vehicle at affordable prices.

“They apply market prices, but only when it’s convenient for them. If we’re going to follow the market for cars, we should also do it for salaries, and later multiply them by the same factor of 8,” a renowned Cuban economist said to me.

Art curator Abelardo Mena suggests we work towards a society “where solidarity and social justice prevail, but where consumption is permitted – the kind of consumption we’ve been denied over decades of a messianic monasticism.” He insists that “underdevelopment and scarcity, not abundance, are responsible for vulgar consumerism and the phenomenon of the nouveaux riches.”

The Cubans Who Lost Their Letters

While it is true that the bulk of the population doesn’t care whether cars cost ten thousand or a million dollars (because they wouldn’t be able to afford them either way), the measure does affect tens of thousands of Cuban medical doctors, intellectuals, diplomats, artists and journalists.

Not even the Soviet Union’s vast economic aid and French consultancy led to a good public transportation system in Cuba.
Not even the Soviet Union’s vast economic aid and French consultancy led to a good public transportation system in Cuba.

On Facebook, Lourdes Llera asks herself what will become of “all Cubans who, with integrity and through great personal sacrifices, managed to obtain a letter authorizing them to purchase a car”, cars which, in their majority, “didn’t cost more than 5,000 CUC (US $ 5,500).”

Duviesky Turiño Gomez left a comment in Cubadebate, saying that, now, “those of us who are working in an internationalist mission will need 4 or 5 continuous missions to be able to buy a second-hand car.”

On various social networks, a State journalist published calculations that estimate that, to purchase a car, a person would need to save 5,790 full salaries in the course of 482 years, concluding that “they went off the deep end with these prices – we’re going to be the world’s laughing stock.”

Those who passed this new law could well have made an exception for these Cubans, assigning the automobiles retired by rental agencies to them at the prices they had before January 3, 2014.

The Cubans Who Hand Out the Letters

A few months ago, art critic Jorge Gomez pointed out that those who make it difficult for Cubans to buy cars are “bureaucrats” that already own a vehicle. He’s wrong. Many a time, they actually have two cars – their work car and personal vehicles.

A doctor, angered over these developments, tells me that those who deny him the possibility of buying a car use State vehicles to go to the beach, take their kids to school or go shopping – practices that, in countries like El Salvador, citizens can denounce and the law punishes.

Public transportation shortages turn interprovincial trips into veritable adventures
Public transportation shortages turn interprovincial trips into veritable adventures

The main argument in defense of the measure is that the government will promote public transportation. A Cuban intellectual replies that the argument would be valid “if those who approved those prices were willing to give up their cars and to start catching the bus like the rest of us.”

To avoid speculation, the government could publish the number of State vehicles used by politicians and officials, the amount of fuel they consume and how much money is spent in spare because, for, when all is said and done, those bills are paid by the work of Cuban citizens.

Cuban Alchemists

It comes as no surprise that reader comments left on Cuba’s official web-site, Cubadebate, are almost all critical of car prices. What’s curious is that the site’s administrators published comments such as “long live the black market!” or “not even my great grandchildren will be able to own a car.”

There’s even a comment by an Internet user which reads: “I’m interested in buying the horse that kicked the guy who set the car prices in the head.” Another user mocks the new measures, saying that “with those prices, they’ll be able to build the Havana Subway in less than a year!”

“If we’re going to follow the market for cars, we should also do it for salaries.”
“If we’re going to follow the market for cars, we should also do it for salaries.”

The fact of the matter is that many Cubans doubt the creation of the public transportation fund will fix things, not after the country was unable to put together a minimally efficient bus system with millions in Soviet aid and French consultancy.

In any event, they still have an opportunity to demonstrate that things will be different this time around. On Friday, a 2010 Hyundai (which costs roughly US $15,000 in the United States) was sold at the equivalent of US $120,000. With that money, they could, in theory, import a brand new bus. It remains to be seen if they’ll let us know when it arrives and where it will operate.

Now, the main challenge facing Cuba’s Ministry of Transportation is akin to a work of alchemy: purchasing vehicles abroad using Cuban Convertible Pesos, a currency which, despite its name, is not convertible outside of Cuba.
(*) Visit Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish).

20 thoughts on “Cubans Comment on Car Prices

  • He needs his straw man to try and pound and pound and pound his ideas home.

  • Thanks for the autobiography. Actually, I was kidding when I asked. Please do not assume that you know what I “stand for”. You could not be more incorrect in your assumptions.

  • I believe in the village concept as expressed, oddly enough, by Hillary Clinton with whom I have nothing else in common.
    I had what can be termed a normal childhood and lived right next to a huge field in which I played basketball, stickball , softball , ice skated, played hockey and I ran track in high school but did not play sports in college .
    My socio-political beliefs have their roots in the poor interracial neighborhoods in which my family always lived and were developed in the crucibles of the civil rights movements, the anti-war movement of the late 60s and early 70s and the women’s rights movement of the 70s .
    I had a number of friends in the (anti-Soviet Trotskyist) Socialist Workers Party and participated and helped them in their many activities while (fortunately) remaining outside their official party ranks during those years when the FBI was committing illegal acts ( Cointelpro) against members of that party and many other legal protestors of U.S foreign and domestic policies.
    I took part in organizing and participating in marches and demonstrations in Boston, New York and Washington D.C. for civil rights, for women’s rights and against U.S. imperialism for some 30 years .
    In other words, I opposed and still oppose everything you stand for: a class society, imperialism: the enforcing of U.S. policies upon the world , the denial of equal rights to women and people of color and the widespread and anti-Christian poverty amidst enormous wealth that are all enshrined in the capitalism you support without qualification.

  • You forgot to mention that you don’t believe in the nuclear family. I am guessing that in high school you didn’t play sports and ate your lunch by yourself in the library. Am I close?

  • Griffin,
    Murray Bookchin is a fairly contempory U.S. anarchist writer whose thinking deals with the worker-led anarchist societies as envisioned by Kropotkin, Bakunin and anarcho-syndicalists like Noam Chomsky but not to subscribe to their main theme which is a worker-led bottom up democratic society ..He does ascribe to the human instinct and history of Kropotkin’s mutual aid society which as thoroughly shown in “Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid : A Factor Of Evolution ” is historically true.
    Bookchin’s visionary anarchism however, incorporates the coming technological revolution in which humans have little work and that worker-led brand of anarchism is obviated, consigned to the scrap barrel as much of Marx has been by the coming of direct democracy which technologies like the internet and universally-owned communications devices make entirely practical .
    My studies of the past four years are concentrated on this coming technological revolution especially since they portend the end of capitalism and the beginnings of that direct democratic society as desired by all the anarchists socialists and communists but not at all in the ways that most of them would have thought or presently think possible.
    My thinking centers on both the innate goodness of humanity and a democratic society , both of which concepts you reject resulting in your thinking that democracy can’t work because people are marked with something like the original sin so prominently featured in the (fictitious) Bible.

  • I thought my country (specially Havana City) could have benefit from the new cars in matters of pollution and transportation, but with these prices and these new laws that are only to show the USA that Cuba is making changes so they lift the Embargo for the monopolized economy by Cuba’s government grows big as China’s.

  • I read The Anarchist Reader 30 years ago, which included Kropotkin and Bakunin. I know what their ideas are. The problem is that if one actually attempted to organize a society as they describe, it wouldn’t work the way they think it would. Reality is very different than the fantasies of fusty of Russians.

  • Thank you for the clarification. But I believe the US is still the single largest source of imported food. I would suppose they get most of their soy from Brazil a pond their rice from Vietnam.

  • It is easy for us, at a distance, to lecture on pollution, but for Cubans, who have to deal everyday with a totally dysfunctional public transportation system (at least in Habana; the situation is a bit better, as you know, in most provincial cities and towns) ). I have waited as P-14 or P-5 Metro Bus passed by without stopping because they were totally filled, or I’ve had to run a couple of blocks to the next stop in the hopes that a few riders would be getting off and I could somehow fit on and, once aboard,try to find some space to fit into while maintaining my balance and not crashing into my neighbors every time the bus turns a corner or comes to a sudden halt. By the end of my trip, especially in humid weather (May through October), I’m pretty wilted and in a foul mood. (The air conditioners on the Yutang buses never works, or has never been turned on, or never even installed.) Often I just give up and take an “almendron.” That option is a luxury for most Cubans, (a typical jitney fare, depending on the route/distance, is $1 or $2 CUC’s days, $3 CUC’s nights; since most Cubans earn only equivalent of $20 or $30 CUC’s a month, they simply don’t have this option, or use it only in dire emergencies), The importation of more cars, especially used cars, would aleviate the daily sufferings and indignities of many Cubans by increasing the maquinas available for these jitney routes, and thus lowering the prices accordingly.

  • Well Griffin , that would be true if anarchism meant simply chaos as you so think.
    Anarchism is direct democracy and a well ordered society .
    It involves the participation of everyone in the decision making that affects a society without the necessity of a formal sitting government which ,as you SHOULD know, when long enough in power, ultimately becomes totalitarian
    But then, as a supporter of totalitarian systems such as capitalism and the U.S.oligarchic government , totalitarianism is your preferred way.
    As a democrat, I am on the opposite side of things from you.
    You might want to read Kropotkin , Bakunin and especially my favorite, Murray Bookchin at the Anarchy Archives website and learn what anarchy is.
    It is a very complete website on anarchy which , again, is nothing like you think it is. .

  • emagicmtnman: the US has been working diligently to get older vehicles off the road because of the environmental impact of their poor fuel economy and pollution. The US government was even paying a premium for older cars just so they could crush them to prevent them from being reused. Shipping them to another country so they could continue to be used would be contrary to that global environmental mission.

    Could you imagine the automobile pollution in downtown Havana getting even worse? Your proposal would do just that.

  • Griffin: while I agree with your basic point, it is fair to point out that Cuba now only imports about 20% of its food supply from the US. They do have to import some 70-80% of their food supply because of their dysfunctional agricultural system, but obviously prefer other countries for political reasons. Unfortunately for Cuba, their agricultural reforms have not caused any increases in productivity.

    It is worthwhile to note that the US refuses to extend credit to Cuba NOT for political reasons but because of Cuba’s disastrous payment record for its external debt.

  • On the Malecon near the memorial for the victims of the USS Maine, in early January, 2013, a Canadian tourist who said he was from BC asked me to take his photo. Was that you? It would be a funny coincidence if it was.

  • This price structure will seriously hurt non Cuban retirement to Cuba. I will be in Cuba next week at both the Melia and Iberostar resorts in Varadero. Gordon ” CubaKing ” Robinson Port Alberni B.C. Canada. C.U. Der ???
    [email protected]

  • In an ideal anarchist society, there would be no paved roads, no street lights, no fuel, and nobody would know how to manufacture cars. Problem solved!

  • Cuba already imports 80% of their food from the US, but they have to pay cash for it. If Cuba were to start importing used cars too, they would still have to pay cash. And as you well know, the importation business in Cuba is 100% controlled by the state owned corporations. These are the same people who imported these Peugeots, Hyundai’s & Gillys and set them at such obscenely high prices. So I do not see any solution to the problem in your proposal.

    Stick with your clown car idea, I liked that better!

  • Of course the government’s pricing system is absurd, and is directed in discuouraging the sale of both new and used automobiles. Even if the public transporation alternatives were better–and they aren’t–I sympathize with those who desire having their own car, or at least reasonable access to one.
    There should be some compromise between the outrageous tax on the sale of new and used cars on the one hand, and surrender to unlimited cars, as is the case up here (which resulted in the rapid decline of public transporation here in the States during the 1950’s and 1960’s, often with the help of the automotive industry’s lobbyists. This can readily be confirmed by reading the history of the decline of public ransportation systems in the States).
    Since so many of our 1950’s and early 1960’s cars have been kept alive for so long in Cuba, why not (despite the embargo) “recycle” as many of our used cars as possible, rather than just junking them? It was common knowedge that many of the “Gone in 60 Seconds” cars which disappeared off streets and driveways in the U.S. made their way to Central and South America, to be resold there to willing buyers. Barges and small freighters lined docks along the Miami River, waiting for receipt of such illicit cargo. And, of course, this sort of thing still goes on, though probably in different venues. Instead of stolen cars, however, why not export still salvagable used cars and ship them to Cuba, where those magicians and alchemists known as mechanics and auto body techs can keep them alive for yet another twenty or thirty, if not fifty, years?

  • It would be constructive and informative to list the percentage of people owning cars in similarly resourced capitalist economies rather then discuss this situation in isolation .
    IMO, so few cars will be bought because the astronomical pricing dictates that only those with outside sources of income will be able to purchase them, that it will be quickly apparent to the Leninist leadership of the country that this plan has generated more antipathy than happiness in the country.
    In a working Marxist socialist society utilizing the hierarchal structure as is the norm and far from the democratic ideals of anarchism and communism, the best option, IMO, would be for the government to both buy and distribute automobiles based on need .
    In an ideal anarchist and democratic and poor society, those autos would be distributed based solely on need and merit as determined by democratic means.
    As it is , this hugely flawed scheme smacks of a capitalist society in which possession of the necessary money is all that is required and with no rewarding of one’s greater social contributions to the society .
    IMO this all will work out rather quickly and not in a way that the undemocratic government will like.
    It will have to make considerable changes to make this seemingly crazy scheme come close to working and I do not see how it can ever really work well at all .

  • I see this entire car pricing discussion to be greatly overblown. Cuban citizens ability to purchase cars is a function of the limited total economic resources of the country. Government controlled pricing only reallocates economic resources, not generate them. The concept that Cuba can afford to improve its transportation infrastructure by charging its citizens more to buy a car is just smoke and mirrors for those who do not understand economics.

    If pricing controlled economics, you could just cut food prices in half and everyone would have twice as much to eat. Or, you could cut housing prices in half and everyone would have twice as big a place to live. Or, you could just double salaries and everyone’s standard of living would double. Only Nicolas Maduro believes in that fairy tale but that is a different discussion.

  • Now comes the avalanche of Castro apologists who will comment on how it is better for the environment and it is more communal for Cubans to have less cars on the road and to spend more time together at bus stops waiting on buses. These are the same people who likely own two cars themselves and have never had to ride even once let alone every day back and forth on the P6 bus from central Havana to the San Miguel de Padron municipality. This is yet another example in the long line of examples of Castro-style socialist bureaucracy that cares nothing about the Cuban people and everything about maintaining the status quo under the guise of ‘reform’. When cell phone service was initially opened up to the public in 2008? (maybe 2007) the cost of a Nokia phone in Havana was $150 plus an activation fee of $75. That phone itself costs only $20 in the US at that time. The ETECSA per minute cost of calls was around 55 cents. Today, you can get a new phone and activation for $25 during monthly promotions. The cost of service per minute is less than 10 cents at night. So, MAYBE, after five years, these car prices will fall from an 800% markup to a bargain basement 100% markup. One can only dream….

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