Richard Schweid's new book, Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba appears to be a history of transportation in modern Cuba, but it turns out to be much more. This beautifully textured and detailed volume examines the strengths and weaknesses of dictatorship, the irresistible force of money-hungry corporations, the role of publicity in politics, and the influence, good and bad, of the U.S. abroad.
Often published by literary smaller presses, Schweid is one of those unpredictable explorers who gets out in the world, looks around and doesn't blink. He's interested in everything, especially food, natural history and the travails of his fellow human beings. The results of his explorations wind up in such surprising books as Consider the Eel and The Cockroach Papers. But who knew Schweid had so much on file in his brain about the role of automobiles in Cuban culture, and in culture in general?Schweid spent time in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, a city on the island's eastern edge, to explore how car-loving Cubans have adapted to stringent limits on the importation and private ownership of vehicles. He found both a sense of resignation and incredible ingenuity in keeping an estimated 60,000 pre-1960 American cars in working order. "Cubans have turned dishwashing detergent into brake fluid, enema bag hoses into fuel lines, and gasoline-burning engines into diesels in order to keep Detroit's dream cars on the road," he writes.
Schweid interviewed mechanics and matrons, artists and historians to create this wide-ranging and thoughtful account of a revolution's aftermath, as seen from the highway. Eventually, Schweid predicts, these classic cars will become revolutionary relics, reminders of the economic privations and oddities of the Fidel Castro years.