Last Tuesday night, I strolled into Villa Habana, my favorite Miami restaurant, for a quick bite. The place was abuzz: Castro … Obama … embargo … empanadas … cucarachas, words like that. I asked my regular waiter, Felipe, what was going on. Some big U.S.-Cuba thing, he said. Stay tuned tomorrow.
I knew my time had come. I dashed for the door. Senor, you want us to deliver? The usual? Felipe shouted after me, but I waved him off, hopped a cab home, called a friend who has the fastest boat this side of the Bay of Pigs, packed my gear, grabbed a pile of C-notes, was dockside within an hour, and, by Wednesday morning, in Havana, tired, unshaven, disheveled. But then, who in Havana isn’t?
I went because of the cars. I’m a vintage American car collector and dealer, and Cuba is the Natural History Museum of ’50’s American roadsters — Chevies, Chryslers, and, if you’re really lucky, the odd Studebaker or Hudson.
I figured that, getting there quick, with ready cash, I’d be ahead of the game. Besides, these guys have been Commies for about two hundred years, right? Just a bunch of Latino hillbillies. So what do they know about the market? The vault’s open. Help yourself.
Downtown, I flagged a taxi, a shiny, red ’54 Buick, puffing smoke but otherwise beautiful. Oh, Mama, what that would bring at a vintage car auction! Where to? the cabbie asked in what sounded surprisingly like English. No go; make palabra, I replied. Jesus, he said, you sound like Tonto talking to the Lone Ranger. Look, I graduated from Cornell in ’55. Let’s do it the easy way. So, what’s up?
Well, I’m here to help, I said. I’m in the environmental business. Now that things are opening up, cars like yours … well, they pollute, they’re inefficient, they’re expensive. You, everybody, will be better off with new cars. I can take this one off your hands for a good price, ship it to Miami and place it with a loving farm family.
Yeah, I had a dog like that once, he laughed. But forget about it. The Russians have it all wrapped up.
The Russians!? I said. I thought you guys called it quits when the Soviet Union fell and the missiles and money stopped coming. And, besides, they don’t give a shit about the environment.
Don’t give me any more of that environment crap. We both know what we’re talking about.
OK, but an old Buick doesn’t have any sentimental value in Moscow. And besides, the Russian economy’s collapsing and the ruble’s in the toilet.
You don’t understand, he said. They’ve bought up all the old cars to keep ’em here and they own most of downtown Havana. They don’t need rubles. They’ve got the dollars. They all live in Brooklyn. They know that, since ’59, America has been pining for Cuba like an old high-school girlfriend. Now, with the government on its last legs, it’s just a matter of time before this place is overrun with American tourists longing to see the Havana of their dreams. What could be better than a ride through the old city in something like a ’54 Buick? Think of it as historic preservation.
Preservation, I scoffed, what’s worth preserving?
The cars, for one. You’ve admitted it.
Well, yeah, but how did the Russians get this past the government?
Past? The government’s behind the whole thing. Who else could have sold downtown Havana?
But I thought they were Communists … dictatorship of the proletariat; control of the means of production … all that stuff.
They gave that up a long time ago. Since the state owns everything, they were just waiting for the best deal. Give ’em a few years, and they’ll all be living in Miami.
Well, if they’ve just been filthy capitalists all along, why did they keep up the anti-American thing?
They didn’t want to lose the embargo. How better to jack up the price? It’s supply and demand, man, supply and demand.