CNN broke this stunning news yesterday: the Obama administration will enter talks with Cuba and likely relax relations between the two Cold War enemies, thanks in part to the release of Alan Gross, an American held prisoner for 5 years in Cuba.
Interestingly, it was Pope Francis who paved the way for the prisoner exchange that lead to Gross's release, and who also laid the groundwork for the phone conversation between President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro.
The bottom line is that the United States will back away, slightly, from a policy that isolates Cuba—a policy that has famously kept pre-Castro American cars on the streets of Havana for more than 50 years. This diplomatic breakthrough could eventually lead to the complete dismantling of the embargo. So what does this mean for the cars of Cuba?
I spoke to Rob Sass, Vice President of Content at Hagerty Insurance and an expert in all things classic cars, to figure out what an end to the embargo could mean for Cuban car owners and American car collectors. Sass clued me into a few truths about the opening of the Cuban market, if it actually happens.
The bottom line is this: don't expect a miraculous trove of barn finds and pristine, restorable classics in the Caribbean island nation.
As many folks know, the embargo has cut off Cubans from a reliable source of spare parts, meaning that many of the classic American cars roaming the streets have been jerry-rigged and McGyvered back together. Often, the solutions are impressive given the scarcity of resources, but the result is American cars with Soviet engines and decades of backyard repairs. These are not clean, original cars just waiting to be reupholstered. As Sass put it, "you're better off finding a candidate in California or Arizona" for restoration.
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That being said, if the embargo is lifted, chances are that this unique culture of preserving American cars by any means possible thanks to a cottage industry of tinkerers will likely evaporate if repair parts become available.
To preserve the unique cars—themselves icons of Cuban ingenuity—foreign collectors will almost certainly swoop in and scoop up a few. You'll likely see these preserved Cuban classics at museums, Cars and Coffee gatherings, special collections, that sort of thing. The value will be in their style and in their cultural relevance—not in their potential as restoration candidates.
There probably aren't a lot of breathtaking barn finds to be discovered, either. Even in the romanticized Batista era, with foreign money and flush gangsters flooding into the casinos and nightclubs of Havana, most of Cuba was very poor. Certainly, a few expensive foreign cars might have been seized, stored, and survived the subsequent decades—and a few might come to light. But Sass thinks it'll be no more than a handful, if that—regardless of lurid rumors swirling to the contrary.
For a very small subset of collectors, Cuba could be a real boon. The embargo never covered Soviet imports and spare parts, and so there are plenty of Ladas and Polski Fiats running around. Sass thinks that enthusiasts of Eastern Bloc vehicles could find some clean Soviet-era cars that might be in better shape or less expensive to bring to America.
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Of course, we're still putting the cart before the horse. There has indeed been a remarkable change in Cuban-American relations, virtually overnight, and it could have an irreversible impact on Cuban car culture. But the embargo hasn't been lifted yet—that will take an act of Congress. And it remains to be seen if the political willpower exists to undo a policy with so much history.
Change is coming to Cuba, that much is certain.
Images courtesy Getty Images.