Following the end of the Second World War, Americans turned their attention to Communism. Although the bloody, devastating conflict had come to an end, political tensions were rising. The United States saw Communist influence as the greatest threat to American citizens, and its leaders sought to contain it as much as possible. The Soviet Union, however, was seeking to expand its influence in the post-war years.
Relations between the World War II allies quickly declined, and the Cold War soon followed. It was an unconventional fight, based on espionage, covert action, and politics. The two nations never went head-to-head, but instead played an international game of chess (essentially a dynamic stalemate, with pieces moving but no one winning). In many cases, smaller nations became pawns for the United States and Soviet Union to throw across the board at one another.
Cuba was one such pawn. The Caribbean nation underwent a revolution in 1959, with a Communist leader replacing the U.S.-allied government that had been in place. When the new government began nationalizing U.S. businesses and properties on the island, an embargo was established, greatly reducing U.S. trade with Cuba. In response, the Soviet Union began compensating for Cuban trade losses. The United States complicated the situation with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; following its failure, the embargo was strengthened to eliminate any trade with Cuba.
The Cold War eventually came to its end, and Cuba, no longer a valuable strategic pawn, has fought a losing battle with poverty ever since. Unfortunately, because of its wording, the U.S. embargo remains in place. Although efforts have been made to reduce its strength, trade with Cuba is still largely illegal for Americans.
Restricted resources have had some interesting effects on the island, including preservation. Because it has not been able to import consumer goods since the Cold War, Cubans have relied on restoration rather than replacement. This is most evident in their vehicles, the majority of which are pre-1960, American-made cars.
While some Russian cars were brought to Cuba after the embargo, they were strictly for government use. Civilians were allowed to retain ownership of cars that had been purchased before the embargo (provided that they had the proper paperwork). A personal car quickly became a valuable commodity.
Because the embargo also prevents Cubans from buying spare parts, any repairs must be done with what is available on the island. To maintain cars that have now been running for more than half of a century, vehicle owners and mechanics have been quite resourceful. In many cases, parts are improvised from other machinery or made from scratch. For those who use their vehicles frequently (such as the taxi drivers on the island), Russian diesel engines have been rebuilt and modified to fit the American cars.
The classic cars, built in the over-sized style of their time, have become known as “Yank tanks” in reference to their origin and dimensions. Unfortunately, as time takes its toll, repairs become more difficult and spare parts less plentiful. Cubans have been forced to reduce their annual travel by roughly seventy percent.
However, even as some of the Yank tanks see their last days on Cuban roads, they retain an important purpose. As relations between the United States and Cuba have improved, hope that the embargo will soon be lifted has grown. With the market open for American collectors, Cubans may be able to make small fortunes from their beautifully preserved vehicles. Road-worthy or not, the Yank tanks may offer Cubans some relief from poverty in the future.