Charles Erwin Wilson


Charles Erwin Wilson, president of America’s largest automaker through World War II, was more than half right when he remarked, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

So, how dumb are our American cousins, anyway?

Here in Cuba, a country of 11 million souls, every one of whom appears to love Chevrolets, any new car you see nowadays is likely a Peugeot or a Geely. Meanwhile, the streets of this proud little island are a-hustle with vintage Chevies — not to mention Mercuries, Plymouths, Packards and Ramblers lovingly maintained with Bondo, duct tape and Russian knock-off parts. They’re kept running, the Cubans boast, by the world’s best mechanics.

This isn’t the doing of either the country’s Communist government or wily French and Chinese auto salesmen. It’s the Americans shooting themselves in both feet, year after year for more than half a century, as they punish the cheeky Cubans for setting too independent an example to the Third World. It’s certainly no objection to Communism, as the hypocritical Americans have little trouble dealing with China or Vietnam.

This punishment takes the form of an embargo — an act of war. The half-century-long war against Cuba hurts ordinary Cubans without question. They struggle on a shoestring, with a little help from their Canadian and European friends — plus the Russians, who are back in droves, mostly as tourists, though more than a few have that Spetsnaz look.

So antique cars, motorcycle sidecars, battered buses and trucks doing service as public transit are the order of the day for ordinary Cubans on the move — not to mention horse-drawn wagons and shoe leather as an obvious fuel shortage bites. Tourists ride in Chinese-made buses.

One could argue the effects of the embargo have not been all bad. Despite their proximity to Florida, the embargo has insulated the Cubans from many of the worst features of American culture. It has also vastly strengthened the government of the Brothers Castro, although this has allowed Cubans to excel in unexpected areas.

Nowadays, American taxpayers may be looking as shopworn as the average Cuban, but even as their government bailed out fat-cat bankers with trillions of dollars, there was no way poor and working Americans had access to the equivalent of Cuba’s excellent systems of public education or health care. It makes one wonder what Cubans could have achieved without the cruel and stupid embargo.

But the embargo has also hurt Americans. Not so far away in Detroit, another crumbling city, the former Big Three automakers are still in business thanks only to bailouts by hard-pressed taxpayers.

Journalists who cover the U.S. automakers began years ago to call these companies “the Detroit Three,” in recognition of the fact non-American carmakers like Toyota, Fiat and Volkswagen are now bigger. In 2009, all GM was so close to collapse it couldn’t function without, in effect, state ownership. You know, like Cuba. And despite the enthusiasm of stock touts, its condition remains fragile.

Access to a market of 11 million people who love GM products and paste Chevrolet bowtie logos on decrepit Ladas and Skodas might not save the Detroit Three, but it sure as heck wouldn’t hurt!

Fully opening this market to American business would also help the Canadian industrial heartland. After all, GM’s most productive and reliable assembly plants are in Ontario. Some are mothballed, and thousands of workers have lost jobs, because of GM’s troubles.

We have an expression in English to describe behaviour like the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” If the Americans were smart, they’d stop. Instead, under President Barack Obama’s disappointing leadership, things seem to have gotten worse.

Ordinary Cubans, of course, crave an end to this pointless cruelty. Perhaps, though, they should be careful what they wish for. Someday they may find new Chevrolets and new friends aren’t as reliable as the old ones!

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga’s column in today’s edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...