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Where Detroit still reigns

News of bankruptcy at General Motors and Chrysler stuns Cuban drivers.

HAVANA — The Pontiac Aztek never made it to Cuba. Nor did the Dodge Nitro, Chrysler Crossfire, or any other flops of the past 50 years of American auto manufacturing.

So as news of bankruptcy at General Motors and Chrysler reaches this city, where thousands of vintage cars from Detroit's heyday still rumble through the streets, Cuban drivers have been stunned. Where did these giants of American industry go wrong?

“General Motors is a great company with a great reputation,” said Michel Cruz Armas, a taxi driver. He said it without a hint of sarcasm, and for good reason: The 27-year-old earns a living plying Havana's potholed thoroughfares in a battered 1956 Buick, making $15 to $20 a day — equal to an average Cuban worker's monthly salary.

While many drivers in the U.S. dumped Detroit brands for Asian and European imports long ago, Cuba's peculiar blend of rigid state control and crafty street-level entrepreneurship has time-warped the capital into a clattering tribute to the golden era of heavy chrome, gentle curves and snazzy fins.

“This is a good car. It's even older than I am,” said Alberto Quintero, 46, whose black Chevrolet Bel Air rolled off the assembly lines in 1955.

Before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba was a short ferry trip away for American auto dealers, who flooded the island with Detroit's finest: DeSotos, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and other brands. But imports came to an grinding halt when the U.S. leveled trade sanctions against the Castro government. Only a handful of American cars have made it across the Florida Straits since then.

Cut off from Detroit, the island turned to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc for its wheels, importing Soviet Ladas and Moskovitches, along with oddities like the dishwasher-sized Polish-made Polski.

Compared to their yanqui counterparts, those vehicles were boxy, boring and cramped, placing function over form in stark contrast to the comfort and style of the American models.

Given a choice, most Cubans today would rather have a new car, and one that doesn't require constant maintenance and huge amounts of fuel, priced at about $4 per gallon here. But it is largely the result of a longstanding Cuban legal quirk that so many vintage American cars remain on the communist island's streets today.