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Globalization - Countries - Cuba

Havana Builds a Shrine to Detroit (Naturalmente)
By MARK A. STEIN, New York Times 6/7/2002

HAVANA - CUBA'S government regularly excoriates the venality and duplicity of the United States, blaming "Yankee capitalists" for almost all of the country's problems, from the global investment climate to the weather.

Imagine the surprise of visitors who discover that the Cuban government is going to the trouble of setting up an entire museum dedicated to one of the most potent symbols of America's capitalist economy: the private automobile.

The collection is currently housed in an old ship-repair shed on an unusually well-tended street in a gentrifying part of the old town near the bustling port. Eduardo Mesejo, a somewhat reserved man who clearly takes his job seriously, oversees the museum, a collection of 30 cars, 7 motorcycles, 3 trucks and assorted ancient gas pumps, stop signals and other detritus of Cuba's car culture.

Mr. Mesejo appreciates the irony of a car museum to which tourists are likely to arrive in a 1952 Plymouth or 1955 Ford. Old American cars are a signature of this city, up there with salsa music and cigars.

He said that the passion that drives Cubans to keep 50-year-old Detroit iron on the road, despite a 40-year-old United States economic boycott that effectively ended new imports, explains why his institution is worth having. Auto-mania is a defining characteristic of the country. "It's a part of our heritage," he said.

In a tacit acknowledgment of that contribution to the culture, the government is preparing to open a formal museum space next year. Some of the best parts of the collection — notably Che Guevara's Chevy, a 1960 mint green Bel Air that was his government car when he briefly served as interior minister 40 years ago — have already been relocated.

Just in time, too. About half of the cars still on display at the old place are off-limits because the roof over them has partially collapsed. Still, Mr. Mesejo said, about 30,000 people a year pay $1 each to see the cars in their current home.

"Here is just a depository," Mr. Mesejo said, by way of explaining the modest surroundings. "A place where we keep the bones until we can restore the cars."

Most of the cars on display are from the 1920's and 30's because they have outlived their useful lives, even here. In addition to several Ford Model T's and Model A's, the models on display include a 1924 Packard sedan, a 1926 Willys Overland Whippet Model 96 touring car, a 1930 V-16 Cadillac limousine and a prewar Dodge hearse with a gilded carved-wood body.

None of the cars have been restored, and all show signs of their very long, very full working lives. One of the oldest in the collection, a 1915 Mack truck with a crank-started 40-horsepower engine, toiled on a Cuban farm until 1970. Many had modern parts added when the originals wore out and new ones could no longer be obtained.

"Right now, we are just trying to conserve the cars, to keep them safe," Mr. Mesejo said. He estimated that all of the cars had at least 80 percent of their original parts, and all are either in running condition "or close to it." The new museum, about four blocks away, will have a restoration workshop, he said, but he is not sure whether the restorers will try to return the vehicles to like-new condition or leave them with some signs of age.

There are also several relatively new cars, including a 20-year-old Daimler limousine, a gift of the British embassy, and a 1982 Chevrolet Malibu Classic donated by the ambassador of Peru.

Mr. Mesejo has donated a car to the collection himself: his father's white-over-brown 1953 Dodge Kingsway. "I wanted to fill in the collection," he said. "We have so few cars from the 50's because they are all still on the road."


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