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17 Jan, 2009 09:28

Adios to Cuban car culture?

The streets in Cuba are filled with ageing classic cars, but now that aspect of the island's unique charm could be under threat.

It's a small country which for a long time has resisted influence from much of the outside world. One place in Cuba where that's especially apparent is on its roads.

Once a friendly port for American sailors, it’s now illegal for U.S. tourists to visit. Things could change in 2009, bringing some fresh traffic to the Caribbean island. For now, some old American cars remain the only reminder of once smooth relations. Preserved in time, they have become a hallmark of Cuba. Due to the trade embargo with the U.S., Cuban drivers can't get original parts for those cars.

If you take a stroll in Havana today you’ll see it’s the Russian-made means of transport that overruns the country. Leftover from decades of soviet sponsorship, they embody Cuban’s innovative way of getting by.

Cubans are masters of managing with what they’ve got. There you can find an American-made Ford running on a Japanese engine, Chinese wheels and with parts from three Russian cars – a Lada, a Moskvich and a Volga. Made in 1937, it keeps going, while anywhere else in the world it would have been put in a museum.

2008 has already seen a shift in gear. Fidel Castro handed the country’s reigns over to his reform-oriented brother Raul, and both have shown willingness to repair relations with the U.S. The newly elected President Barack Obama vowed to close down Guantanamo prison and ease travel restrictions.

Many fear opening to the U.S. would mean losing the legendary classic cars from the island, replacing it with modern Americana. Spain, however, and, of course, Russia, insist on only minor tuning to the Cuban way.

“I hope Cuba won't be damaged by capitalism. Look around and you see Cubans are poor, but they are happy. I hope they will keep their charm once they open up,” a Russian tourist said.

Just like Cubans say that the first Russian cars were better than the new ones, Russia hopes the Cubans like their old wheels better than the new ones.