December 13, 2011 / 8:03 PM / 7 years ago

In Cuba, old clunkers and Soviet cars now for sale

HAVANA (Reuters) - Want to buy a blue 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air for $11,000 or a Soviet-made Lada 1600 for $15,000? Or for that matter, sell one?

In communist Cuba, now you can.

For the first time since the 1959 revolution Cubans have the right to buy and sell any car - something that was only done before with the government’s ‘okay’ - or on the black market by illegally purchasing vehicles licensed to somebody else.

Decades of trade sanctions and a ban on car sales have nurtured the island’s trademark “stuck-in-time” feel where 1940s and 50s Chevrolets and Fords are revamped with used engines and spare parts to clunk around on the Caribbean island’s streets.

So now hundreds of Cubans are taking up the opportunity to enjoy a first taste of wheeling and dealing in the auto market.

“There weren’t any transfers before. If I bought a car it was illegal, and the owner was still the other guy, but now I can be the owner. The car will be in my name,” said Diego Sorrel, 51, who was looking to buy a car to use as a taxi.

Before the new regulations, only automobiles in Cuba before the 1959 revolution could be freely bought and sold, which is why there are so many 1950s or older cars. Other vehicles were off limits.

Classic U.S. cars are not going to disappear from Cuba, however, since vehicle imports are still restricted to Cubans with government permission and foreign residents.

Liberalizing car sales is one of more than 300 economic reforms the government of President Raul Castro is undertaking as part of an “updating” of its socialist system.

Since it entered into effect at the start of October, around 300 people are lining up daily to register vehicles, or buy and sell others, and the vehicle registration office has processed around 3,300 buy-sell certificates, state media reported.

In the small country of 11 million people, news of sales or potential buyers spread through word of mouth, a few informal car brokers who hang around in parks or a few websites - though occasional “For Sale” signs dot cars lining the boulevards.

“It made the buying and selling between people flexible. It recognizes vehicles as property which wasn’t recognized before,” said a Cuban lawyer waiting in a park outside the vehicle registration office.

“You can do it whenever you want now.”

The process, however, is not without snags.

For years before the reform, cars changed hands under the table, but vehicle titles did not.

So the current owner of a car may not have bought it from its original title holder, and some Cubans complain that people holding that title are asking them to pay mandatory fees required by law for both the seller and the buyer. (Additional reporting by Reuters TV; editing by Todd Eastham)

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