Mechanics of Cuba

There are no set designers hiding in the wings, no Hollywood producers commissioning replicas; these vintage cars are originals (at least partially) and these are the mechanics who keep them chugging.

On Animas street in the Centro Havana neighbourhood, in the muggy Caribbean climate, mechanics work on the old iconic cars that keep Cuba looking like Cuba. There’s no garage; they work on the street. Neighbours stop by and chat, some pull up chairs, asking what they’re working on today, offering their two cents.

Bárbaro Rinal, 70 years old with a head full of silver hair, is the maestro around here. He's a man of few words and has a serious face. All around him there’s a steady stream of playful heckling and joking, especially from his two apprentices who are both 20 years old. But when Bárbaro speaks, they listen. And when Bárbaro takes over because they can’t figure it out, their eyes are glued to his fastidious hands, and their faces close as they can get without blocking the light.

 Bárbaro learned on the job - by watching and then working, just like his apprentices. For the first 12 years he worked for the state, then he opened his own shop, where he now has 3 employees.

          Me: Why did you decide to become a mechanic?

          Bárbaro: Because I liked it.

          Me: Do you still like it?

          Bárbaro: Yes.

A man of few words.

It's no secret why Cuba’s streets are lined with mostly American cars that are over half a century old, giving the impression you’ve stumbled onto a movie set or time travelled to the 1950s. Since the beginning of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the United States – Cuba’s closest trading partner at the time – imposed economic sanctions on its southern neighbour. Starting in response to Fidel Castro’s government nationalising US assets on the island, President John F Kennedy officially instituted the trade embargo in 1962. This meant Cubans no longer had access to any American goods, including cars and car parts.

What people know less about is how exactly a society on a small island, isolated from much of the outside world, actually functions.

As a Cuban sewing machine repairman who works on machines as old as the American cars and replaces broken pieces that he makes from scratch with recycled materials once told me:

"You know that expression, 'Necessity is the mother of innovation'? Well, the father? He's a Cuban!"

The mechanics on Animas street have puzzle-piecing skills that nearly no other car repairmen in the world would need. Beneath the hood of each vehicle is a collection of parts that tell the story of a complicated 58 years since Fidel stormed the streets of Havana and led a successful coup d'état. 

The shell may be a 1952 Chevy, perhaps originally owned by a member of Havana's elite when the island was known as "America’s playground." Back then the city looked shiny and new and it was full of casinos, ritzy hotels, mafia, and high rates of inequality. But after this Chevy was confiscated by Fidel’s government, as all cars and property were, and run into the ground as a taxi, it might be running on a Russian engine now. Pieces used to repair electrical wiring might be borrowed from a Japanese brand like Hyundai. And if it’s real souped up it might have a CD player in it from the black market, with a supply chain based in the US, but made in China.

Esteban Eduardo Garcia Chavao, 45, has been working as a mechanic-electrician since 1991. Today he's working just across narrow Animas street from Bárbaro and The Boys (that's what I’ve started calling them, to myself), but he's a one-man-shop so he goes wherever his customers' cars are. Esteban studied for a vocational degree as a transportation automotive technician and specialised as an electrician. His first job was as the mechanic for a police unit, where he worked for 5 years, then at a diplomatic agency, and then for a journalism agency - all government jobs. Just under 80 per cent of the Cuban workers are employed by the state and the standard salary is around $25 per month.

Fifteen years ago Esteban applied for a self-employment license so he could work for himself. The Cuban government authorises just 201 different types of self-employment activities, of which, working as a mechanic is one. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, revolution-era Cuba lost its biggest ally, trading partner and financial supporter. This island nation is host to a society that entered modernity on pace with all of its neighbours – it depended on oil and manufactured goods like everyone else – and as the years passed, their access to foreign markets dwindle drastically, and their economy crumbled. The 1990s brought extreme food shortages, civil unrest and mass migration. Yet Fidel’s government did not move toward democracy, so the US did not lift its embargo.

Cubans had to come up with their own solutions. From these challenges sprouted a deeply entrenched culture of ingenuity in one of the world’s last standing communist counties. Despite an economic system based on state-controlled industry and social services, everyone in Cuba is an entrepreneur, an innovator or an inventor, if not for financial gain, for survival.

While I sat and tried to understand all the Cuban slang for car parts that I hardly know in English, a vehicular marvel of another sort turned onto Animas street. Guillermo built this cart/cover from the rain/mobile-office himself, which he pedals with his arms because he doesn't have use of his legs. His hustle: he rolls around Centro Havana with a tool kit he uses to carefully cut open disposable lighters, which he refills with lighter fluid, and seals back up again. Like many other things designed to be thrown away, in Cuba, even plastic lighters can be used over and over again.

Over the three days I spent visiting Animas street, Bárbaro and The Boys were working on convincing a ten year-old Kia engine to make a 1956 Chrysler run again. Bárbaro’s customer and owner of the car is Carlos Arias, a taxi driver in Havana, who is originally from Mexico City. When I asked how often he goes back home, he said despite a low salary he's able to go several times a year because he pays for his plane tickets by buying clothes in Mexico and then selling them at a premium back in Cuba. People with relatives in the US have more purchasing power now after President Obama lifted the limit on remittances that American citizens can send to their families in Cuba. But supplies of all kinds remain in short stock on the island, including clothing.

While he works on a 1952 Chevy, Esteban explains how he's fixing the break lights, points out all the different countries the parts are from, discusses why he became a mechanic in the first place, and tells me about the satisfaction of inventing new solutions:

Keeping these cars running is not easy. For now it is a necessity, and on top of that, tourists pay a lot of money (for Cuban standards) to ride in them. But if the US Congress votes to end the embargo, the Cuban market could be flooded with new cars and the old classics could become relics, reserved only for visitors who will still expect to see them. And what will happen to mechanics like Bárbaro and Esteban who kept the cars – and the Cuban people – moving for so long? Well, if they can work the magic that they have over all these years, they can probably succeed at working on modern, well-functioning vehicles full of parts from a single brand. 

With a majority Republican House and Senate, an overruled embargo is unlikely to go through any time in the next two years. But when it does happen, a collective hat-tip to these "fathers of innovation" is in order, and a salute to whatever task they take on next as they put a Cuban twist on a transition into the 21st century.