Anger as new and used cars go on sale in Cuba

HAVANA (AFP) - Cubans hoping to snap up imported cars Friday after the relaxation of restrictions dating back half a century had a shock with prices way out the reach of anyone but the elite.

The communist regime said last month that it would ease its ban on car imports, marking the end of an era that made icons of Cuba's vintage automobiles.

Opening Cuba's domestic car market to imports was expected to have fateful consequences for the lovingly maintained 1950s Chevys, Fords and Pontiacs that have survived a 50-year-old US embargo.

But there was anger and disappointment Friday when prospective buyers in Havana laid eyes on the prices of new and used vehicles, AFP reporters said.

A swish Peugeot 4008 SUV was going for US$239,500 (S$302,000) at the Sasa dealer in the capital - nearly five times what it costs in Europe.

Used vehicles were also available in the capital, but at prices that most people in Cuba can only dream of - salaries average just US$20 a month.

A 2010 Hyundai Sonata was going for US$60,000 and a Volkswagen Passat in the same year had a price tag of US$67,500.

"I was thinking of buying a car, and I had about US$20,000 to spend, but it's impossible," one disappointed buyer, Dorian Lopez, told AFP, staring incredulously at a Sasa price list. "With these prices, I not only cannot buy, but I can not even dream ," lamented the Cuban musician Alfred Thompson, at another dealer, in the west of Havana.

The official newspaper Granma said last month that the imported cars would be sold at market prices, a step designed to gradually free up retail sales of all manner of vehicles - automobiles, vans, trucks and motorcycles - and end the practice of granting some Cubans special permission to bring in vehicles as a privilege.

The changes are a long-awaited element of President Raul Castro's attempts to gradually liberalize Cuba's Soviet-style economy.

No official figures are available on Cuba's automobile fleet, but experts believe there are around 60,000 American cars still circulating on the island. Mixed in with them are Soviet-made Ladas and Moskvich cars made in the 1970s and '80s and more modern, usually Asian-made, vehicles imported by the government.

The new legislation also eliminates the "Letters of Authorization" issued each year to a few thousand privileged Cubans to enable them to buy a car.