As car market opens, Cubans shocked to find eye-popping prices

Stick to vintage? Drivers had high hopes for relaxed import rules, only to find some vehicles cost up to five times the going rate in Europe

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 5:23pm


Cubans hoping to snap up imported cars after the relaxation of restrictions dating back half a century had a shock with prices way out the reach of anyone but the elite.

The communist regime said last month that it would ease its ban on car imports, marking the end of an era that made icons of Cuba’s vintage automobiles.

It is monstrous. ... It is a lack of respect for the people. No one can buy at this price, it’s impossible
Bernardo Garcia, resident

Opening Cuba’s domestic car market to imports was expected to have fateful consequences for the lovingly maintained 1950s Chevys, Fords and Pontiacs that have survived a 50-year-old US embargo.

But there was anger and disappointment last Friday when prospective buyers in Havana laid eyes on the prices of new and used vehicles.

A swish Peugeot 4008 SUV was going for US$239,500 at the Sasa dealer in the capital - nearly five times what it costs in Europe.

Used vehicles were also available in the capital, but at prices that most people in Cuba can only dream of. Salaries average just US$20 a month.

A 2010 Hyundai Sonata was going for US$60,000 and a Volkswagen Passat in the same year had a price tag of US$67,500.

Watch: New car prices put the brakes on drivers' dreams

“I was thinking of buying a car, and I had about US$20,000 to spend, but it’s impossible,” one disappointed buyer, Dorian Lopez, said, staring incredulously at a Sasa price list.

“With these prices, I not only cannot buy, but I cannot even dream,” lamented the Cuban musician Alfred Thompson, at another dealer, in the west of Havana.

The official newspaper Granma said last month that the imported cars would be sold at market prices, a step designed to gradually free up retail sales of all manner of vehicles - automobiles, vans, trucks and motorcycles - and end the practice of granting some Cubans special permission to bring in vehicles as a privilege.

The changes are a long-awaited element of President Raul Castro’s attempts to gradually liberalise Cuba’s Soviet-style economy.

“It is monstrous. They say that the cars are for sale in Cuba, but it is a lack of respect for the people. No one can buy at this price, it’s impossible,” said 35-year-old Bernardo Garcia.

No official figures are available on Cuba’s fleet of cars, but experts believe there are around 60,000 American cars still circulating on the island.

Mixed in with them are Soviet-made Ladas and Moskvich cars made in the 1970s and ‘80s and more modern, usually Asian-made, vehicles imported by the government.

The new legislation also eliminates the “Letters of Authorisation” issued each year to a few thousand privileged Cubans to enable them to buy a car.

“We were miserably deceived. It is an abuse. It has been two years since I have the letter but that is for millionaires, not the people,” said Mayra Echarpe, 57, of the national centre for popular music in Havana.