When anyone mentions Cuba, you immediately think of cigars, rum, old American cars, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Communism. I recently paid a visit to the island and learned a lot about the people, the country, and their unique transportation system. Trucking in the US looks a lot different than in Cuba, but, somehow, the freight still gets moved.
The island of Cuba was inhabited by various cultures prior to the arrival of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492. After Columbus’ arrival, Cuba became a Spanish colony, ruled by a Spanish governor in Havana. In 1762, Havana was briefly occupied by Great Britain, before being returned to Spain in exchange for Florida. A series of rebellions during the 19th century failed to end the Spanish rule. Later, the Spanish-American War resulted in a Spanish withdrawal from the island in 1898. Then, following three years of subsequent US military rule, Cuba gained formal independence in 1902.
After gaining their independence, the Cuban republic saw significant economic development, but also political corruption and despotic leaders, which culminated in the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel and Raul Castro, which ended in 1959. Cuba has since been governed as a socialist state by the Communist Party under the leadership of the Castro brothers. The country has been politically and economically isolated by the United States since the revolution, but has gradually gained access to foreign commerce and travel as efforts to normalize diplomatic relations have progressed.
This small Caribbean island is more complex than first meets the eye. Putting aside current US-Cuba relations, what a lot of people don’t know is that most of the population are on food rations – and have been since the 1960’s. This was when the US tightened sanctions of exported goods to Cuba. After Fidel Castro had gained power from the Batista government, he started to nationalize a host of American companies trading in Cuba. This action, combined with a Communist dictator on their doorstep, didn’t sit well with the US government of that time. The US, before the revolution, had been the main provider of everything Cuba needed. In turn, Cuba provided the US with everything the island is famous for, along with Nickel ore.
After the revolution, from a trucking point of view, there were a lot of American vehicles which had been parked in an unusable state. Suddenly, every hauler realized that new or second-hand trucks could no longer be bought from America. This instigated a “make do and mend” approach which came into play, with repair and renovation being their only real way forward. You can just imagine the work that went on to make non-standard engines, transmissions and axles fit trucks that were originally destined for the scrap heap!
Cuban haulers were “recycling” long before the term was coined. Subsequently, lots of US trucks continued to be used for years – and some still survive today. As the dust settled after the US embargo, Cuba looked to other parts of the world to trade with for its needs. Trade links with the old Soviet Union were set up and Cuba began to buy Russian trucks and crude oil. Cuba is not an oil-rich country, but did have the refineries to turn crude into gas and diesel. Russia, in turn, would buy Nickel, cigars, liquor and sugar. As time went on, Cuba also began to trade with Spain, Holland, Italy, France, West and East Germany, Canada, and South American countries.
As you travel on the generally-decent road network of Cuba, old trucks from most of the countries mentioned can still be seen. The frustrating thing for me was that not all of them could be photographed, so you will have to take my word for it. French Berliets, Simcas and Unics, Spanish Barreiros, East German IFAs, Russian GAZ and KrAZ trucks, Italian Fiats and Ivecos, and a host of 1950-era US trucks of all descriptions were seen.
Years later, in the 1980s, Cuba began manufacturing their own trucks. With an agreement package with Spanish maker Pegaso, the Narciso Lopez Rosello factory in Havana began to build three models. The trucks, renamed Taino, after the indigenous people of Cuba, featured a 17-ton, a 38-ton and a 45-ton GVW chassis. Not to confuse things, however, the Rosello facility also signed up with the Russian company, Kamaz, to build an 11-ton GVW chassis truck. Japanese manufacturers Nissan, UD and Hino also exported trucks to Cuba from plants they had set-up in Central America. Hino must be especially revered by the Cuban haulers, because it is thought that Hino engines were transplanted into trucks of all makes. Then, the Hino badge was fixed to front of the truck. To further cement trade relations, Hino even opened a truck dealership in Havana.
By the 1990s, Cuba’s closest ally and best customer, the old Soviet Union, was, to put it mildly, going through tremendous change. The newly-elected government soon realized that Russia was paying way over the market price for sugar from Cuba. This, combined with other issues, saw trade disappearing considerably with their old ally. This drastic situation was the beginning of a devastating effect on Cuban life. This era is known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace” for Cuba.
With no crude oil coming in from Russia, transport obviously suffered. Cuba is not a country in which large amounts of their citizens own a car, so there became a greater reliance on public transport. For the population to get around, old forms of transport were used, like horse-drawn taxis, rickshaw taxis and bicycles (the government actually bought over a million bicycles from China, as well as organized the production of a large number in Cuba). Not long after this, the introduction of the “Camel” bus was seen in Havana.
Havana, at that time, had a population of around 2.2 million people, of which a large number traveled by public transport. The “Camel” (or Camellos) was a large bus trailer fabricated from two old Russian buses that could hold up to 300 passengers. The name was derived because the trailer design had two humps – one at the front and one at the rear. There were a number of these trailers operating in Havana that were towed by different makes of tractors. Later, as Cuba stabilized due to new trade links with China, the Camellos were phased out, and by 2010, most were replaced with fleets of new Chinese buses.
During the era of the “Special Period in Time of Peace” in Cuba, apart from the fuel crisis, there was also a famine. The imported food sources had dried up and the government began encouraging a program of increased agriculture, ideally, looking for the country and its people to become self-sufficient. However, the growing of crops takes time and this, combined with some of the worst hurricanes in memory, meant that Cuba was still in a bad state.
By the mid-1990s, while all of this other stuff was going on, the Fidel Castro government decided to concentrate on many reforms. One of them was to expand tourism as a way forward to prosperity. The Varedaro region, especially, on the Hicasos Peninsula, was developed with huge hotel complexes to attract European, Asian and Canadian tourists.
In 2006, Fidel Castro was diagnosed with internal bleeding and underwent major surgery. Duties as the President were delegated to his brother Raul, with Fidel being consulted on important issues when his health improved. Retirement came for Fidel Castro in 2008, and by 2011, his brother Raul officially became President of the National Assembly.
Cuba today is more stabilized and has been experiencing good trade links with China. Trains, buses, refrigerators, TVs, trucks and a host of other products all come from China. Some Chinese manufacturers have opened truck plants in various parts of South America to satisfy not only Cuba, but a lot of the Latin American markets, as well. On the subject of oil, Cuba has discovered three offshore oil fields in the last few years. Unfortunately, and against expectations, the fields have not yielded much quantity, as of yet. To keep transport running, most of Cuba’s oil supply now comes from Venezuela.
In 2014, a new positive relationship began with the Obama administration and the Raul Castro government. This was known as the “Cuban Thaw” after 54 years of Cold War hostilities between the two countries. The new atmosphere of a warm, cordial association, has showed some positive movement toward normalization, in a host of different areas, since the talks began some two or three years ago.
We will have to wait and see if the new Trump administration will continue with the legacy started by Barack Obama, but, for the meantime, Cuba, with its sometimes-antiquated freight systems and trucks, will just have to continue making due. And with the recent death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, the $64,000 question is: “What’s next for Cuba?” Only time will tell.