Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's Oldsmobile
By Richard Schweid (University of North Carolina Press, 256 pp., $27.50)
The author will appear at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Dec. 8 at 6 p.m.
Nashville native Richard Schweid is a genuine polymath. The son of the proprietors of Nashville's legendary Mills Bookstore (still revered but many years gone), the 58-year-old Schweid has gone on to become a Barcelona magazine publisher, production manager for an Oscar-nominated film, and author of books about such matters as cockroaches, catfish, eels and Cajuns. His most recent work, written with a journalist's eye and a high sense of irony, is a history of 20th century Cuba examined through the unlikely lens of the American automobile.
Prior to Castro's Revolution in 1959, American cars were the single most important luxury item in Cuba. It was a time when Cuba had the highest per capita ownership of Cadillacs in the world. But in 1960, in response to Castro's nationalization of American oil interests, President Eisenhower embargoed all American exports to Cuba, most notably American cars and parts. The embargo, coupled with Castro's abolition of consumer credit, broke the Cuban automobile business overnight.
Without the flow of new cars from Detroit, a Cuban cottage industry of car retooling and repair sprang up to maintain the cars already on the island. The remnant of that pre-1960 American fleet still operates there today, but in radically altered form. Old Studebakers, Chevrolets, Fords, Packards, Cadillacs, Kaisers, Edsels and DeSotos, ingeniously restyled with Latin exuberance and élan, haunt the roads and constitute the only real conveyances in a country whose system of transportation is a shambles of rickshaws, bicycles, the occasional bus and horse-drawn carts.
"The mechanics...who have kept these cars running all these years," Schweid says, "belong to a genre of Cuban genius" whose mantra is "Todo tiene arreglo excepto la muerte": Everything can be fixed except death. The endlessly repaired cars are in fact saved from death by mechanics sequestered in their private garages, toiling like priests maintaining an ancient ritual. Schweid says, "These cars are like old people. They have liver spots of discolored paint, an inability to retain their fluids, and a coughing ignition that makes it hard for them to get started in the morning. Still, they hunch over and keep going." He compares these "jalopies" to humans who have undergone organ transplants and joint reconstructions: "The cars have all been modified, many drastically, but they have not lost their souls."
It is fitting that the old cars should still be maintained and driven, Schweid says, because they are the vehicles that "carried the Cuban Revolution." During Castro's first strike, taken in 1953 against the Moncada military barracks of Fulgencio Batista, the fidelistas assembled in 20 American automobiles, and Fidel himself arrived in a blue 1952 Buick. The raid failed, and Castro was jailed for a time, but the Revolution re-asserted itself in 1959 when Castro launched an attack on the Presidential Palace. The assault consisted of three American vehicles: a Buick, a Ford and a Dodge truck crammed with 42 rebel soldiers. This attack also failed, partly because the Dodge blew a tire from the weight of all the rebels it carried, and the truck was riddled with bullets, killing many of the rebel leaders. As an ironic icon of the Revolution and America's ultimate opposition to it, the mangled body of the old Dodge sits today in front of the former palace, virtually where it stopped, as a monument to those who died.
There is something slightly comical, but poignant, about Fidel and Che Guevara rolling off to the Revolution in Detroit's finest: Fidel rushes to the battle at the Bay of Pigs in a faithful Oldsmobile, and Che prowls the streets of Havana in his own beloved Chevy. Schweid's carefully selected photographs of Fidel and Che tooling around in their favorite carsthere's one of Che driving away from his wedding in an old Studebaker, for instancehumanize these revolutionaries and belie the common caricature of them as deadly banditos. Schweid doesn't spare the Revolution its failures, however. He points out that travel within Cuba is virtually impossible today, that political repression is endemic, and that hunger is a constant threat. On the other hand, he gives Castro his due: Cuba is a country of almost universal literacy and access to health care, and its chronic poverty is not of the "bone-crushing, hope-extinguishing" kind found in other Latin American countries.
The research in Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's Oldsmobile is meticulous, and Schweid's interviews with ordinary Cubans, with their stories of hardship and make-do happiness, give the book an immediacy many histories lack. His writing is engaging, and captures the flash, sass and flair of the old cars and the people who maintain them.
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