Cuba and its people: Cars, culture, change

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Posted 04 May 2016 in PAPA News

Interest in Cuba is on the rise with President Obama’s historic visit in March, but a couple of Phoenix-area residents beat him to the punch sharing their experiences at the April meeting of the Phoenix Automotive Press Association.

Brendy Priddy, known for her spy photography of yet-to-be-released cars, will lead her fourth trip to the island nation this fall. Ted Lagreid, a retired W.P. Carey & Co. exec, led an Arizona State Research team there just prior to Obama’s arrival.

Both agree Cuba is fascinating, the people fabulous, and change in the wind, but Lagreid adds “It’s very difficult in this country to get a balanced perspective.”

More straightforward, as evidenced by videos and photos seen recently, are the 60,000 vintage American cars on the road. That’s part of what attracted Priddy; some of her photos were featured in 2013 at a Chandler Center for the Arts exhibit. But her first trip was a KJZZ public radio people-to-people cultural exchange.

“I’ve always wanted to go to see the cars, but the people of Cuba were truly the highlight of my trip,” she says. “Being in the car industry, I realized that many of my friends, as well as the people that follow my journeys by way of my artwork, would also be interested in going, seeing the cars, the museums, and most of all – the people.”

Priddy has been very impressed with the people and the feeling of safety, walking around the cities at night. She fondly recalls a cab driver who picked her up in the rain when she’d left her wallet behind. Though they had to stop several times, to wipe the windshield, since his wipers didn’t work, she made the long trip back to hotel and wanted to get him his fare. He wouldn’t hear of it, she says. His smiling response, “My gift to you.”

It’s not just the cars that are old in Cuba, many of the buildings are crumbling giving it a Third World feel, Priddy says. The U.S. embargo after Fidel Castro seized power, means you don’t see many American cars made after 1959. There is the occasional Chevrolet pickup, new Audis and Mercedes in the hands of government officials, Ladas and other Russian brands.

“It’s amazing to see what they can do with their passion and resources,” Priddy says of the Cuban car owners resolve to keep their old vehicles running. You hear stories of people bringing in little bottles of paint from the U.S. and using diesel and tractor engines.

Lagreid has been to Cuba five times in the last 12 years. The goal of his latest trip was to see what’s happening on the island now and build a relationship between Cuba and ASU on matters both academic and diplomatic as part of the school’s global outreach initiatives.

He agrees that the Cubans are a resourceful people with challenges they must work through daily. There also are lots of ironies related to the embargo, he says. In contrast to the old cars, you see lots of American products, from Pringles to Rubbermaid carts. “It’s not his isolated place you think.”

And despite the crumbling infrastructure, some things are very modern. Cubans are a healthy people, thanks to an emphasis on preventive medicine, he says. Hospitals may not be fancy, but many doctors have a high level of expertise.

Children must stay in school until they are 17, helping to create a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent, he says.

As for the future, some things will change quickly, but most will evolve over the next decade, he says. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out.”

The first two months of 2016 brought 1 million tourists to Cuba, Lagreid says, so if you plan to go, be sure to have a hotel lined up.

Another caution, he says, is not taking things at face value but digging under the surface for the truth.BJ_5525_priddy

Ted Lagreid Ted Lagreid

Photos by Brenda Priddy

For more: cubaWithBrendaPriddy.com, tedlagreid@gmail.com