Cuba loves Chevrolets; GM needs sales: what’s wrong with this picture?

An ancient Jeep, probably with a Lada engine, drops passengers at Revolution Square last week in Havana. The sign says: “51 years of struggle and victories.” Below, Charles Erwin Wilson, an old Chevrolet (and a new Peugeot) on a Havana street, and scenes of Havana’s crumbling housing. Oh, wait! The last one’s in Detroit.

HAVANA, Cuba

This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.

Charles Erwin Wilson, president of America’s largest automaker through World War II, was more than half right when he remarked, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

So, how dumb are our American cousins, anyway?

Here in Cuba, a country of 11 million souls, every one of whom appears to love Chevrolets, any new car you see nowadays is likely a Peugeot or a Geely. Meanwhile, the streets of this proud little island are a-hustle with vintage Chevies – not to mention Mercuries, Plymouths, Packards and Ramblers lovingly maintained with Bondo, duct tape and Russian knock-off parts. They’re kept running, the Cubans boast, by the world’s best mechanics.

This isn’t the doing of either the country’s Communist government or wily French and Chinese auto salesmen. It’s the Americans shooting themselves in both feet, year after year for more than half a century, as they punish the cheeky Cubans for setting too independent an example to the Third World. It’s certainly no objection to Communism, as the hypocritical Americans have little trouble dealing with China or Vietnam.

This punishment takes the form of an embargo – an act of war. The half-century-long war against Cuba hurts ordinary Cubans without question. They struggle on a shoestring, with a little help from their Canadian and European friends – plus the Russians, who are back in droves, mostly as tourists, though more than a few have that Spetsnaz look.

So antique cars, motorcycle sidecars, battered buses and trucks doing service as public transit are the order of the day for ordinary Cubans on the move – not to mention horse-drawn wagons and shoe leather as an obvious fuel shortage bites. Tourists ride in Chinese-made buses.

One could argue the effects of the embargo have not been all bad. Despite their proximity to Florida, the embargo has insulated the Cubans from many of the worst features of American culture. It has also vastly strengthened the government of the Brothers Castro, although this has allowed Cubans to excel in unexpected areas.

Nowadays, American taxpayers may be looking as shopworn as the average Cuban, but even as their government bailed out fat-cat bankers with trillions of dollars, there was no way poor and working Americans had access to the equivalent of Cuba’s excellent systems of public education or health care. It makes one wonder what Cubans could have achieved without the cruel and stupid embargo.

But the embargo has also hurt Americans. Not so far away in Detroit, another crumbling city, the former Big Three automakers are still in business thanks only to bailouts by hard-pressed taxpayers.

Journalists who cover the U.S. automakers began years ago to call these companies “the Detroit Three,” in recognition of the fact non-American carmakers like Toyota, Fiat and Volkswagen are now bigger. In 2009, all GM was so close to collapse it couldn’t function without, in effect, state ownership. You know, like Cuba. And despite the enthusiasm of stock touts, its condition remains fragile.

Access to a market of 11 million people who love GM products and paste Chevrolet bowtie logos on decrepit Ladas and Skodas might not save the Detroit Three, but it sure as heck wouldn’t hurt!

Fully opening this market to American business would also help the Canadian industrial heartland. After all, GM’s most productive and reliable assembly plants are in Ontario. Some are mothballed, and thousands of workers have lost jobs, because of GM’s troubles.

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 were smart, they’d stop. Instead, under President Barack Obama’s disappointing leadership, things seem to have gotten worse.

Ordinary Cubans, of course, crave an end to this pointless cruelty. Perhaps, though, they should be careful what they wish for. Someday they may find new Chevrolets and new friends aren’t as reliable as the old ones!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

4 Comments on "Cuba loves Chevrolets; GM needs sales: what’s wrong with this picture?"

  1. David Heyman says:

    Cuba Kool-aid must be delicious, but I'll pass, thank you. Its secret ingredient leaves those who consume it to hilarious bouts of public hypocrisy.
    Mr. Climenhaga writes "ordinary Cubans, of course, crave an end to this pointless cruelty." He means the U.S. embargo but he should mean the communist government's ban on free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the imprisonment and execution of political prisoners, the ban on certain travel, other political parties, and so on. Only recently, I hear, have Cubans been allowed to go to their own tourist hotels where Mr. Climenhaga no doubt stayed.
    He also says the US is punishing Cuba for setting too independent an example. Surely he knows Cubans have no ability to set any kind of example, independent or otherwise. They haven't had a free and fair election in many decades. The example set is that of the brothers Castro who would never condescend to let the masses speak for themselves.
    The U.S. embargo should last until Cubans can choose their own government. Then Fidel and Raoul will learn how ordinary Cubans really feel about them and the embargo.
    Keep up the entertaining and well-written columns, David. Merry Christmas.

  2. David J. Climenhaga says:

    Cuban Kool-Aid is best with a little rum and some mint leaves, accompanied by a nice cigar. I'm assuming from this comment that Mr. Heyman also advocates cutting off Alberta's trade with China, seeing as there's no free speech there, no freedom of assembly, the execution of political prisoners, a ban on certain travel, political parties and so on. People who agree with Mr. Heyman need to remember that the embargo has in fact done more than anything else to keep the Castros in power. No good comes from punishing ordinary Cubans for the sins of their government, real and imagined. The very best of the season to everyone!

  3. jerrymacgp says:

    Cuba is indeed a communist dictatorship, suppressing dissent and oppressing its people, but is no worse than any of the other dictatorships, of either the left (e.g. China) or the right (e.g. any Latin American strongman of the last 60 or more years), with which the US has had no problem dealing. Consistency in foreign policy is often sacrificed for realpolitik.

    The real reason for the continuation of the embargo is internal US politics, where the value of the state of Florida in the electoral college that selects their President is combined with the power of the Cuban ex-pat lobby.

    Happy New Year.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My, such emotional responses. What could be the trigger?!
    Depending on one's privilege, one might find KKKanada's own brand of kool-aid particularly egregious. Look to the G20 for criminalization of dissent and assembly. Oh, our non-democratic electoral system! So much for each vote counting. And, freedom of the press?? Ha. Why am I reading Mr. Climenhaga's excellent blog rather than the privatized msm propaganda?
    Truth does trigger emotions; especially if it does not coincide with our own corporatist state propaganda. Truth is, indeed, a revolutionary act.
    Truth on, Climenhaga!
    Cheers,
    T. Evans

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