by Charles Kaufman, senior vice president of B'nai B'rith International
The curious who’ve never visited Cuba want to know, “So how ‘bout those ‘50s cars?
By all accounts, there are tens of thousands of cars from the era of Elvis — Packards, Chevys, the Plymouth Belvedere, Cadillacs, the Pontiac Star Chief, Dodges, the Oldsmobile Rocket and Fords. Cuba reportedly was the largest importer per capita of Cadillacs during the 1950s, at the dawn of the Castro Revolution.
With appearances of Havana today mostly frozen in time from the 1950s, the classic cars are commonly found cruising areas popular with tourists are rest as heavy hunks of metal parked on the sides of narrow streets.
When the U.S. embargo was initiated in 1962 and Cubans could no longer import parts to repair the American classics the plight of the cars worsened. Some vehicles showed the rust of neglect. Many of them looked beaten up like Rocky Balboa after a 12-round fight. Today, many vintage cars remain are dulled by age and the Caribbean heat, while others are buffed and restored to appeal to tourists.
The Soviet Union's Ladas, Moskvitchs and Volgas remain prevalent on the streets. When the former Soviets unplugged from Cuba, however, the Yank Tanks gained new life. Owners with proper plates worked to restore them.
Let's remember, however, few people own cars here. Gasoline is in short supply for consumers and few people can afford a car and the costs associated with it. Suffice it to say, there’s little traffic throughout Cuba, even in Havana, a city of two million people. Most Cubans get to where they're going on foot, by over-crowded buses or vehicles that look like school buses.
Comfortable, air-conditioned tour buses carry loads of visitors from all over. As for those American Classics, some are privately operated taxis, permitted by Raul Castro as a form of free enterprise to boost the tourism trade. They are tricked out in the most garish of colors. Check out the rides here and, while you're at it, crank up the volume on “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry.
My wife, Rosalie, and I went on an eight day B'nai B'rith International mission to Cuba in early December. It was an amazing and enlightening trip to say the least. Our primary goal was to meet with the tiny Cuban-Jewish community and to provide them with medicine, personal clothing, comfort items, Chanukah and other religious items. The group brought 1,100 pounds of goods with us.
Cuba has a population of about 11 million. There are only an estimated 1,500 Jews left in Cuba, a far cry from the 15,000 in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power. There are five synagogues on the island: three in Havana, one in Santiago and one in Guantanamo. Throughout our week in Cuba, we visited all five and met with their leaders and members.
From what we could see, there seems to be minimal anti-Semitism in Cuba and there is a memorial to the Holocaust in the center of Havana.
I encourage you to consider joining a mission and see Cuba for yourself.
Cuban Jewish Relief Blog
Reports on the B'nai B'rith International Cuba Jewish Relief project.
March 19-26, 2015
For more information on ways to get involved in the Cuban Jewish Relief Project or for mission registration, please contact:
B'nai B'rith Cuban
Jewish Relief Project
B'nai B'rith International
1120 20th St NW
Suite 300 N
Washington, DC 20036