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Posted January 18, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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BY RON MENCHACHA | Charleston Post and Courier Staff

To see a row of 1950s American automobiles parked along the street—chromed, finned and absurdly comfortable—is to walk in the days before the U.S. trade embargo. Cuba is a living, breathing time capsule.

The embargo, imposed in the early 1960s to punish Cuba for its leaders’ communist plunge, has shielded the Caribbean nation from modern Western influence. The country’s 1950s atmosphere is what makes it so attractive to outsiders.

1950s-era cars from the United States still roam the streets of Havana, vivid reminders of the time when trade stopped between the U.S. and Cuba.

Havana has adapted. Many of the lavish casinos and hotels built with American money in the 1930s, 40s and 50s are used by the government. Mansions from the pre-Revolution era have been chopped up into apartments.

Several of the city’s original municipal buildings and, of course, the classic cars, are major tourist draws.

The Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths from the 1940s and 50s are integral to Cuba’s romance, but they are loud, dirty and prone to breaking down. Exhaust fumes permeate the air.

The old cars that dot the many roadsides of Havana are a lot like Cuba—beautiful, but in need of repair.

Mandy Fernandez, a bicycle taxi driver, owns a 1935 Chevy. He’d like to get his taxi license to shuttle tourists around. It would certainly beat the pedaling gig he’s got now. The problem is feeding the beast at about $3.80 per gallon of regular gasoline.

But that’s only if he sticks around. Fernandez says he longs to leave his wonderland—again.

Fernandez said that in 1977, his family fled Cuba’s socialist regime. They made the 2-1/2-day journey to Florida on a stolen boat, packed tightly with some 70 other Cubans. He was just 11, “a little kid.”

He claims to have spent the next 18 years in Miami and New York as an illegal immigrant before a traffic ticket led to his deportation back to his homeland. He did not explain why he did not receive residency status, as do many Cubans who flee to Florida. Now he supports his wife and son by pedaling tourists around Havana on his Bici-taxi.

“I would rather live in the U.S.,” he says in nearly perfect English from the front passenger seat of a beat-up 1980 Russian-made Lada. “Here, sometimes I feel bored. Nothing to do, no place to go.”

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