What springs to mind when you think of Cuba, the Caribbean island and archipelagos that lie at the meeting point of the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Ocean? Perhaps it's pristine beaches and tropical climate, fragrant hand-rolled cigars, or carefree rum cocktails drunk on a warm evening as the sound of a local salsa band spills out onto the streets.
Whilst all these things are undoubtedly true, and have gone a long way to shaping the culture and character of this colourful country, there's one ubiquitous presence that surprises most visitors when they spy them first on one street, then another, and another…
In the UK we take a lot of things for granted, being able to buy a new car when we need or want to for example, but in Cuba sanctions imposed after the revolution of 1959, meant strict trade embargos between the two countries; no more cheap sugar for the sweet-toothed Americans, but the ramifications for Cubans was a lot starker. Almost immediately President Eisenhower banned all exports, barring essentials such as food and medication, going so far as to blacklist any nation that discounted his orders. And although Obama began the reversal of these half-century old policies last year, there are still plenty of reminders about the extent of the U.S's red fear, throughout this island nation. One of the most prominent are the all at once kitsch and cool classic cars; from taxis to family run-arounds, there are 'yank tanks' on every corner, with the flashier ones even available for tourists to rent, giving them that authentic Cuban experience. Though keeping them maintained has been a struggle, as replacement parts from the superpower just 90 miles to the north of the capital, were banned during the years of economic blockade, meaning many have been patched up using soviet hand-me downs.
But how did all these fifties Fords, Chevys and Chryslers come to be here in the first place? Before the uprising that allowed Fidel Castro to take top spot, Cuba was a much-loved holiday hot-spot for American mobsters who, just because they could, brought their own transport over from the mainland. They were such an influence in the moulding of Cuba's infrastructure during these years in fact, building hotels and casinos, paying for private performances from the likes of Frank Sinatra, that their exploitative criminal empire was acknowledged in the Godfather Part II during a rooftop party in which Havana plays a starring role.
Things look set to change though, and as American tourists prepare to pick up where the gangs left off, many Cubans are eyeing up the retro automobile market, with plans to cash in on the decades of TLC they've shown their vehicles by selling them on to stateside collectors. But this isn't the end of the kaleidoscopic curves and soft edges distinctive of a bygone era just yet, modernity though, as ever, is looming on the horizon.