I’ll tell you up front that my personal vehicle has crowns of rust on the rear wheel wells and an interior that smells vaguely of dog puke. It’s a 2006 Mazda3 with 150,244 miles on it and it gets me around my modest world well enough, but I sure never considered it the stuff of headlines—until I went to Cuba, an experience that tuned up my feelings about several American phenomena.
I’d booked the trip because I wanted to get out of this American time. Cuba seemed like a prime destination for escape: a nearby yet isolated island where the culture had developed without… well, us. But after United Flight 1502 had touched down in an airfield where lush green hangs over the encircling chain-link fence and a rusted sedan dropped my husband Fletcher and me in trash-strewn central Havana, I began to understand that Cuba isn’t so much a great place to get lost in as a place to get found in.
“Why are rich countries rich?” Alexander asked us, from the front seat of his 1955 Easter-egg-pink Ford Fairlane. He glanced our way in the rearview mirror, beneath which a huge yellow Taxi sign rested on the glossy pink dash. His tone tipped us off that his query was rhetorical, so we waited patiently for the answer. “They suck something from somewhere else,” he said. “And that’s why Cuba is poor. We never suck nothing from no one.”
What little we knew about Cuban history confirmed this, so Fletcher and I nodded.
Alexander wondered aloud about the US embargo—el bloqueo, as it’s called here. How could Washington still be afraid of Cuba? He gestured at the scenery, mostly vegetation punctuated by the occasional lone roadside vendor selling ropes of garlic or handfuls of potatoes. “We have nothing here,” he said.
“You know what the Cuban dream is?” he continued. “To own a car.”
We hadn’t, in fact, known this. And while Alexander himself was apparently doing well by this metric, most of his country is not. Cuba is famous for its antique American cars, a favorite attraction for tourists. But to Cubans, those ancient vehicles—whose only original parts are their steel bodies, welded together and repainted untold numbers of times—are just evidence of their island’s pervasive scarcity. There certainly aren’t enough cars, or buses, or motorcycles, or motor scooters, for all the people who want them. This was a fact with which I became personally acquainted on my second day in the country when Fletcher and I tried to buy bus tickets out of the capital city. Everything, we’d discovered, was booked. Everything! And the bus stations were mobbed with people trying to get their hands on tickets.