Economy featured

The Irony of Cuba: How Old, Polluting American Cars In Havana Point The Way Toward Degrowth

January 23, 2024

In 2017 my wife and I went to Cuba for two weeks. We dropped off asthma inhalers at the only synagogue in Havana.  Shelly had collected these from members of her physicians’ journal club. This shul runs a small pharmacy dispensing mostly common, over the counter medicines that, ironically, in the world’s most “medicalized” society, are in short supply. These are offered free to the public.

The shul’s administrative director, a tall, middle aged Black man named Leonardo told us proudly that there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. “The only place on earth,” he emphasized, “where we are safe. We don’t even have to lock the doors.” In Havana members of the small Jewish community resemble the people walking in the streets. A woman named Rosa told a story about Fidel Castro’s visit many years earlier. “He asked me how many Jews lived in Havana. The actual number is about 1,200 but I told him 1,500. It sounded so much more impressive.” This line provoked gales of laughter from people who overheard it.

Cuba has more doctors per capita than any country on earth – and it isn’t even close. Medical expertise may well be Cuba’s outstanding export, with authorities leasing physicians to nations in every corner of the globe, and yet you may not find a bottle of acetaminophen at the critical moment when a migraine aura forecasts the imminent arrival of an unbearable headache. Such are the strange contradictions engendered by the eternal US embargo. The blockade has, for generations now, enforced greatly diminished material circumstances upon the Cuban people. (Today, Cuba is in an economic crises. We saw awful poverty six years ago, but healthy, well fed people. Obama had taken steps toward normalizing relations with Raul Castro’s regime. Fresh produce was cheap, and available everywhere – no longer. Trump and now Biden continue the American tradition of tormenting the Cuban people.)

Havana offers a startling mosaic – sky scraping monuments and glistening filaments of sea spray vie with broken architectural structures that scream of entropy and decay. Chunks of limestone, fallen from once sublime buildings, gather with uncollected trash in the streets. However, music blares everywhere, and not just any music, but, most often, Cuban music.

We met American composer and musical impresario, Robert Kraft, by random chance. I had never heard of him, but later learned online that he had written the scores for a number of box office breaking films including “Titanic.” We asked him for directions to the Hotel Nacional and struck up a conversation. I am inclined to believe his contention that Cuban musicians drive our planet’s creative rhythms and musical trends. There is nowhere on earth as musically important as Havana, Kraft stated.

Our talk with Kraft – he gave us tickets to the Havana premiere of the movie, “Score” – reinforced my sense of Cuba as a place of endless incongruities. Here, suffering and artistic grace have come together almost seamlessly. Is there another country on earth that has done so much with so little? Havana is home to the world’s preeminent classical guitar composer, Leo Brouwer. Its streets offer a feast of murals and sculpture. Live music is everywhere. We spoke with young graduates of The University of Havana music program. It is hard to get in to the university, and harder to make a living, but we do this full time, a young singer told us. The government gives musicians a small stipend. Gone is the party dogmatism against jazz and popular music that caused Paquito D’Rivera to defect in 1980. Irakere, one of the world’s most eclectic Latin jazz ensembles has, like Cuban cars, achieved timeless renown.

What sort of system builds a vast profusion of medical clinics to punctuate a crumbling cityscape? Why would a society train an army of world class musicians when the potholes in the street are an existential threat? Might Cuba be inadvertently or awkwardly performing an in vivo experiment in the psychology of degrowth – with priorities directed away from economic expansion in favor of health and the arts, two pursuits critical to human well being that require no mines, factories and little expenditure of fossil fuels? Necessity and cultural vitality have made Cuba into a one of a kind outpost for thinking outside of the box. The island, true to the essence of degrowth, invests in human infrastructure. It is the poorest of the very few nations that have achieved a 100% literacy rate.

The Cuban version of degrowth is not affixed to the looming climate catastrophe, but rather, more fundamentally, focused on the fine details of triumphing in a world of chronic deprivation. In Cuba, the US embargo is the mother of invention.

Famously, visitors to Cuba gaze upon an almost dreamlike parade of antique cars that might easily be misconstrued as a museum-like depiction of American automotive style from the 40’s and 50’s. But the ancient products of the expansive American ego have been completely repurposed as symbols of Cuban resilience and community. Cuban cars have been stripped of their primeval meaning – to provide a quick adrenaline rush to buyers. These relics have attained a sort of immortality that we don’t generally associate with the disposable products of Detroit manufacturing. There is a saying about the relationship between Cuban cars and their custodians: “there are no mechanics in Cuba, only sorcerers.”

One does not drive into Havana as one drives into Boston or San Francisco, it emerges in a startling instant, like a hallucination. Indeed, Havana is surrounded by fields rather than suburbs – its sudden and improbable array of images convey a surrealistic paradox – the Cuban revolution froze automotive time at an instant when American car design most perfectly symbolized colonial plunder. The flaring, jagged, sword-like tail fins of Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles of the fifties defined the egotistical strivings of those fully invested in material acquisitions and global conquest. Cars from that era were bigger, heavier, gaudier and more flamboyant than anything before or since. The doddering cars that still make their ways through the narrow, one-way streets of Centro Havana are ghosts – misplaced, absurd, a testament to fate’s obscene sense of humor.

In America, cars are a flagship commodity. They shine brightly and flame out. A car loses 20% of its value in one year, 30% in two. The sinking value conveys its intrapsychic purpose, to pump up dopamine quickly like a shot of Fentanyl, and to fade soon enough to leave the owner shaking with the urgent need to boost flaccid moods with another injection of automotive opiates. Material objects can never satiate the addictive cravings that animate capitalism. Cars, like clothing, like sound systems, like appliances, etc. are created to be acquired and discarded in an endless feedback loop of lust, disappointment and waste.

A recent paper ‘Ecomodernism and the Libidinal Economy: Towards a Critical Conception of Technology in the Bio-based Economy,’ by Roel Veraart, Vincent Blok and Pieter Demmers, emphasizes that patterns of consumption become hardwired in the circuitry of human psychology. No movement to slow down the self destructive, planet ruining trajectory of human behavior can succeed, the authors argue, without targeting the fundamental problem of material addiction:

Principally tasked with endlessly promoting and accelerating consumption, modern media technologies become increasingly short-termist, narrowing our attention and feeding it with fabricated fantasies.”

The paper, quoted above, applies the ideas of the late French philosopher, Bernard Steigler to the contemporary debate between Ecomodernists and those who argue that sustainable human economies must embrace “degrowth.”  Steigler, in his 2010 manifesto argued that the human brain has been restructured via advertising bombardment to become an accoutrement to neoliberal markets:

“Now, while this generalized becoming-waste pollutes the natural environment, the disposability of the object affects the subjects who dispose of these objects: they feel that they themselves are disposable. Consumerist society thus proves to have become, today, and in the eyes of everyone, toxic, not only for the physical environment, but also for mental structures and psychic apparatuses: as drive-based, it has become massively addictogenic…”

Steigler distilled the threats exposed by the 2008 global economic collapse into the term, “politico-militaro-ecological catastrophe.” This social apocalypse, Steigler stated, linked to the psychological ruin that consumerism inflicted on the public. One hears echoes of Steigler in a recent piece by Jason Hickel, stating that,

“No political program that promises to analyze and resolve the ecological crisis can hope to succeed if it does not also simultaneously—that is, in the same stroke—analyze and resolve the social crisis.”

Centro Havana does not have any excess space. One sees few parks, playgrounds and parking lots. Life is lived openly in the streets with soccer and stickball (played with broom handles and bottle caps) and acts of mechanical sorcery performed in public view. One cannot walk down Cuban streets without seeing hoods up and faces meditatively contemplating the pistons and spirits within. Most often, there are a number of men, an informal minion of sorts, attempting to collectively resolve the seemingly impossible task of transforming ancient contraptions into states of perpetual motion.

The mechanical wizardry in Havana appeared to be carried out spontaneously, as if street mechanics drew inspiration from the same muse animating the sounds of a Cuban percussion ensemble. Improvisation is the key. Almost every mechanical task involves repurposed use of tin cans, coat hangers or mechanisms taken from random appliances – American car parts have been embargoed for sixty five years. A belt taken from a Soviet era washing machine might keep the grim reaper from collecting a 1957 Ford Fairlane.

I do not wish to idealize Cuba. We saw no women drivers, and absolutely, no women staring into the entrails exposed by open hoods. Sexism has stubbornly dominated Havana’s automotive life. Still, in a society with almost no female drivers, 61% of doctors are women. The Cuban revolution may once have inspired fits of runaway idealism, but shortcomings cannot be denied. The Cuban dependence on tourism has recreated uncomfortable colonial images – wealthy European vacationers being served by Black hotel staff seem to belong to a prior era. In Cuba, vibrancy and regression wrestle together with no resolution.

Cars in Cuba may have attained collective immortality, but each car proceeds into forever one day at a time. Thus, the nexus between people and cars in Cuba more closely suggests the relationship between a pianist and a piano than it resembles the perfunctory interaction between an addict and a bag of heroin. A Cuban car demands a disciplined and daily ritual of care. Like musical study, automobiles are a lifetime commitment.

In addition to our stay in Havana, we also spent a week in Trinidad which features well preserved colonial architecture in a central district well known for burgeoning tourism. Horrific poverty characterizes neighborhoods adjacent to the tourist district.

We decided one morning to hike to a beach some seven miles southeast and after about ten miles of walking, we realized that we were lost.  We had strayed from the main road and found ourselves in a neighborhood of houses so dilapidated that I can not adequately describe them. There were broken windows patched with strips of newspaper. Some houses had sagging walls and roofs as if their demise might be moments away. An elderly man reclining on a front porch recognized our confusion and instructed two neighborhood children to escort us to a nearby house where, notably, a red and white 1958 Chevy Belair sat parked in the yard. The man pointed at the Chevy and promised, “Ernesto will drive you for only five Cucs.”

Ernesto, a man in his late 50s, confirmed that he had been named for Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose iconic image dominates the symbolism of Cuban life. A particular photo of Guevara has become the most reproduced image on earth, and can be seen – in various revisions – stenciled on houses, framed on interior walls and sold to tourists on tee-shirts.

While he drove us to the beach, we talked to Ernesto about many things, and Shelly (I speak no Spanish) questioned him about how he came to have the car. He said that it had been given to him by his grandfather some thirty years ago, and that once, after the Soviet collapse, he had considered selling the vehicle. “Sometimes things are good and sometimes not.” He told us that he will one day give the car to his son. Ernesto paused, breathing deeply. Talking about the car, he said, reminded him of his grandfather and he softly wept, apologizing for his emotions.

Later, Shelly asked him about the vehicle’s value. At first he shrugged his shoulders indifferently, but then squinted as if thinking hard. He said nothing for a full two minutes, and just as Shelly asked him how he felt about Raul Castro, Ernesto blurted out, $50,000. His face relaxed with satisfaction, but a moment later he changed his mind and upped the figure to $70,000. I had my doubts. The car belched out hellish circles of black smoke, and ran with ear piercing, grinding decibels of mechanical distress. The price that Ernesto impulsively blurted out may just as well have been in the millions – I assumed that $70,000 was a metaphor for priceless.

When I argue that Cubans have reinvented the connections that people form with material objects, I obviously do not imply that they simultaneously have tamed machines to take up the tasks of environmental sustainability. Cuban cars are an ecological disaster forced upon desperate people by the US embargo.

Ernesto told us that he did all of his own repairs and described how just yesterday he had secured a dangling tail pipe with metal strips, solder and coat hanger wire. So many times, Ernesto related, he had worried that the car might not be saved, but always there is a way. Again, a tear rolled down his face.

It struck me that, along with the language barrier, we talked across an ocean of incommensurate cultural comprehension. My car means nothing to me. When my teenage son totaled our car hydroplaning while fiddling with Blue Tooth, he was not hurt, and insurance mostly covered the cost of replacement. I felt nothing other than relief. Ironically, in a hyper-materialistic society, things have almost no emotional value.

Perhaps no one else had ever asked Ernesto to talk in detail about his car. Cubans understand the commitment, time and skill that cars demand. There is no need to talk about things that are obvious. But the emotional weight of a car might be something else entirely. I sensed that Ernesto experienced a catharsis from indulging our curiosity.

Cuban cars share the precarious and uncertain fate that characterizes Cuba as a whole. To keep a ’58 Belair running with no access to replacement parts is akin to climbing a rock face with no safety ropes. Unlike in America, where cars are as disposable as plastic cups, every Cuban car, I imagine, has a story – perhaps a near death experience in which oblivion and sorcery converged.

When we arrived at the beach in Trinidad, Ernesto got out of the car and showed us details of his work. He pointed out a spot where he had painted over rust. He showed us that the Belair had two exhaust pipes, and opened the hood to display an enormous V-8 engine, touching various parts with his calloused finger to trace particular fine details. One by one, he listed which parts were original and which were his own replacements. His eyes and hands had scrutinized the hidden patterns of the motor in a manner of intimacy that made no sense to me at the moment. It almost seemed as if Ernesto wanted to sell us the car, but it was all quite the opposite, for Ernesto had already explained that even the worst contingencies of Cuba’s economic vulnerability could not dislodge the Belair from his family.

I can only guess about the precise meaning that cars have in Cuba – do people worry about them, feel sorry for them and have nightmares about their eventual deaths? Do people ever imagine some future time when sorcery runs out and the Malecon is still? We should have asked Ernesto if he had named his car.

I did not realize it at the time, but Ernesto taught us a critical lesson about the essence of degrowth (a term I was not yet aware of). If we ever euthanize consumerism and replace it with degrowth we will have to adore material things far more deeply than we currently do. In this future world every possession will need love and attention – cars, shirts, shoes, cell phones, coats, hats, dishes, bowls, appliances….these will all become important, and, in the best case scenario, might make us happier. We will become, like Ernesto, not owners but stewards – tailors, mechanics, carpenters, repairpersons, potters. We will have to reinvent the lost art of self-reliance.

Philosophers, poets and writers, throughout human history have praised the virtues of simplicity. Thoreau wrote in Walden about the benefits of wearing pants with patched knees. He warned us to beware of any “enterprise that required new clothes.” A pair of pants with patches at the knees has transformed the mender – the relationship between a garment and wearer becomes one of reciprocity rather than of commodification.

Rather presciently, Thoreau wrote that undue pursuit of things and comfort is a trap:

“The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course a la mode.”

There is a growing body of research supporting Thoreau (and Ernesto) regarding the deep connection between people and possessions in the context of a simpler lifestyle.

A recent study – “Toward a Theory of Minimalism and Well Being,” by Kasey Lloyd and William Pennington discovered that:

“Many participants reported they no longer engage in recreational shopping, and almost all participants reported any purchases they now made were strategic, purposeful, and well-researched. While participants tended to reject the materialistic idea that possessions portrayed status, a number of participants reported that the possessions they currently own add joy or value to their lives. As they truly liked and identified with their possessions, they assisted them to feel more authentic.”

Lloyd and Pennington specified that simplicity benefitted the well off, but did not bestow happiness upon those living in poverty. Such an assertion, I believe, diminishes the agency and resourcefulness of Cubans who have – under terrible circumstances – created medical, musical and automotive miracles despite being bullied and harassed by the world’s most predatory nation. I believe that degrowth has value to all, and if widely adopted would powerfully address inequity.

It will not be easy to embrace degrowth even though we must do so. Degrowth will involve hard work. We could, however, easily lift the blockade.

Phil Wilson

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker who has written for Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Resilience, Current Affairs, The Future Fire and The Hampshire Gazette.