Charles Erwin Wilson, president of America’s largest auto manufacturer throughout World War II, was more than half right when he famously remarked, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
So, how dumb are the Americans?
Here in Cuba, a country of 11 million souls every one of whom appears to love Chevrolets, about the only new car you can buy nowadays is a Peugeot or a Suzuki. Meanwhile, the streets of this proud little island country are crammed with vintage Chevies like the models illustrated in this blog – not to mention more than a few Fords, Plymouths, Packards, Nash Ramblers and Willys Jeeps – lovingly maintained with bondo, duct tape and Russian knock-off parts. (The work of keeping them running, the Cubans boast, is done by “the world’s best mechanics.”)
This isn’t the doing of either the country’s Communist government or wily French and Japanese auto salesmen. Oh no, it’s the Americans who have been shooting themselves in both feet, year after year for nearly half a century, as they punish the Cubans for being so cheeky as to set too good an example to the Third World.
The punishment takes the form of an embargo – that is, an act of war. And with their war the Americans have hurt the Cubans, no question. The inhabitants of this beautiful island have had to learn to get by on a shoestring, with a little help from their Canadian and European friends – and the Russians, of course, who by the way are coming back. (Canada’s contribution, one is certain, comes much to the distress of Premier Harper and his fellow members of the American Party of Canada.) So, shoe leather, old cars, motorcycle sidecars, battered buses and even horse-drawn wagons are the order of the day for Cubans on the move.
One could argue, however, that the effects of the embargo have not been all bad. Despite their proximity to Florida, it has insulated the Cubans from many of the worst features of American cultural imperialism. And it has vastly strengthened the government of the Brothers Castro, allowing the Cubans to build among the world’s best medical and educational systems. These are arguably superior in many ways to their counterparts in the United States, which is no doubt why the Americans hate the Cuban government so. It makes one wonder what the Cubans might have achieved, though, without the cruel and stupid American embargo.
Nowadays, American taxpayers may be looking as shopworn and raggedy as the average Cuban, but even as their government bails out fabulously wealthy banksters to the tune of trillions of dollars, there’s no way most Americans have access to anything like Cuba’s excellent systems of public education and public health care.
But the American embargo has also hurt American businesses. Not so far away in Detroit, for example, the former Big Three automakers are wobbling on their last legs, reduced to begging for a bailout from the hard-pressed U.S. taxpayer.
So pathetic is their present state that they can’t even be called the Big Three any more! Toyota Motor Corp. (hometown Toyota City, Japan) is bigger than any of them by production volume, while General Motors, barely solvent, clings to the No. 2 spot by its fingernails. Volkswagen long ago bumped Ford to No. 4. And Chrysler, the Three in Big Three, is now a distant No. 12, well behind the likes of Honda, Renault, Fiat and, yes, Peugeot. (This is thanks in part, no doubt, to the French carmaker’s many Cuban sales.)
Journalists who cover the U.S. automakers have taken to calling them “the Detroit Three,” an indication of their straitened circumstances if ever there was one, as anyone who has ever visited that benighted Mid-Western city can attest. All three are so close to collapse that they can’t function without, in effect, state ownership. You know, like … er … Cuba.
Access to a market of 11 million people who love GM products, wear GM logos on their clothing and paste Chevrolet bowtie logos on their aging Ladas and Skodas might not save the Big Three, but it sure as hell couldn’t hurt! (Chrysler, it appears, has figured this out, and finds its way around the embargo with a modest flow of new Chinese-made Jeeps.)
Fully opening this market to American business would help the Canadian industrial heartland too. General Motors’ most productive and reliable auto-assembly plants are located in Ontario. Some are mothballed, and thousands of workers are on long-term layoffs, because of lack of demand for GM’s products. Moreover, this week GM is threatening to close the rest, to score a few meagre political points south of the border and bludgeon their unionized employees into concessions.
We have an expression in English to describe behaviour like the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” If the Americans are smart, they’ll stop. They have a new president who is manifestly smarter than the old one. I guess, one of these days, we’ll see how smart.
The Cubans, of course, should be careful what they wish for. They may find new Chevrolets and new friends aren’t quite as reliable as the old ones!