International Newsmaker Q&A: Tom Miller

Jan. 1, 2020
Tom Miller, author of Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba. Miller has been writing about Latin America and the American Southwest for more than 30 years.

Newsmaker: Tom Miller

This week's newsmaker is Tom Miller, author of Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba. Miller has been writing about Latin America and the American Southwest for more than 30 years. A veteran of the underground press of the 1960s, his work has appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, LIFE, the New York Times, Natural History, and numerous other publications. He wrote the introduction to Best Travel Writing — 2005, and has conducted educational tours through Cuba for the National Geographic Society and other organizations. Miller was born in Washington, D.C., attended the College of Wooster in Ohio and since 1969 has lived in Arizona 65 miles north of the Mexican border. He has appeared on NBC, NPR, CNN, HBO, XM and CSPAN, among other broadcast outlets, and was a major contributor to the four-volume Encyclopedia Latina.

Miller makes his home in Tucson with his wife Regla Albarrán. For more information, visit his Web site.

What changes do you see coming in Cuban society now that Fidel has retired and Raúl has taken over?

That's a very broad subject. In brief, there are a number of scenarios at play here. Raúl is just as strong a believer in the communist ideology and socialist economy as Fidel was, only he's far more disciplined and organized about it. He wants to make it work smoother, eliminate — or at least reduce — corruption in government. Make the trains run on time, so to speak.

In the New York Times you mentioned, “I predict a great future in low end auto parts. The Pep Boys, Checker Auto Parts, AutoZone — that's where it's at for Cuba of the future.” Do you think that time has arrived? Would you care to elaborate?

That's up to the U.S. government, which won't let U.S. businesses invest in Cuba or open up franchises there, and the Cuban government, which has certain strictures about what companies from which countries can do business there. Do I think the time for this has arrived? I think the time was years ago, but it's up to Congress, which controls the Trading With the Enemy Act — the technical name for the embargo — and to a lesser extent the U.S. president. He can support or deny any effort.

Do you anticipate the automotive parts and repair market opening up so that Cubans can obtain American parts for their cars?

Yes I do, but it won't be any time in the foreseeable future. Once Raúl turns the government over to the next generation of leaders, assuming there continues to be an orderly transition, there will be a period of no change, then a slow opening for a parts and repair market. Despite the passions of many people on and off the island, it's not exactly a priority there. My guess is that permission to open such businesses will be like in many other countries, in which the foreign investment cannot exceed 49 percent of the business.

What is the actual scope of pre-1960 cars throughout Cuba? Do the current economic conditions seem to support the possibility of restoring these vehicles?

Current conditions, no. Current conditions allow for one car at a time worked on by private parties or black market mechanics. One element that may come into play is that Raúl Castro favors small mom and pop businesses, so these clandestine operations (which operate pretty much in the open anyway) may become licensed and taxed by the state, and function that way.

I understand that Cubans make most of their own repairs. Where do they currently obtain parts that they are truly unable to fabricate themselves?

You'd be surprised by and in awe of what they can fabricate themselves. They routinely cannibalize old Soviet Ladas and Moskvichs for parts for their old American cars. Some car owners benefit by having friends or relatives overseas who, when they visit, bring down specific needed parts. When I was in Cuba just a couple of months ago, I took a taxi with a fellow who said his father was the house carpenter for one of the major U.S. automotive showrooms. As a gift one year, he was given a brand new American car. The son, who is now in his early fifties, still had it and maintained it as best he could — and asked if I could I bring down some parts next time. Well, my suitcase is full without helping out a stranger with car parts. But it can be as informal as that. Who knows — his next foreign fare might have said sure, he'd do it.

Do you see opportunities for U.S.-style parts stores and repair shops in Cuba?

Yes. They may come from Mexican investors — perhaps the franchise owner for AutoZone, for example, in Mexico City will have the opportunity first (though at this point it's not legal, since U.S. law forbids parts or branch outlets of U.S. companies from operating in Cuba). Repair shops? Possibly. Here at home I take my car to a fellow who works for Goodyear, so I use Goodyear for major repairs. Could a Goodyear or Brakemaster, so common in our society, work well in a country that's ingrained with individual, freelance mechanics? Most people think not. Personally, I think it would work. Cubans haven't had a choice of consumer goods for about 50 years; my thinking is they'd welcome the options. Culturally, they love to absorb U.S. qualities.

Based on your experiences in Cuba, are Cubans eager to befriend American car buffs and parts suppliers, etc.?

Absolutely yes.

Do you think the Cuban public will be open to buying newer-model, contemporary U.S.-made cars?

Open to it, yes. But whether their economy will grow enough so lots of people could afford new cars is another matter. Further, the Cuban government might say, Brits, in. Swedes, in. Germans, in. Americanskis, not so fast.

TailLight Diplomacy suggests that cultural exchanges be arranged so that owners of like-models in the U.S. and Cuba can visit with each other. Do you see that as an effective plan for improving relations between Americans and Cubans?

Absolutely, yes. The regulations that are carried out by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control don't allow, at least right now, such visits. However, under Clinton something like that was possible, so who knows? Under the next presidency here the regulations may slacken a bit to allow such visits once again.

Do you have any other advice for Americans who wish to connect with Cuban car owners?

My advice would be the same as for any other passionate interest — if you get to Cuba, legally or otherwise, you will have little-to-no difficulty finding the world of your interest, whether classic American cars, chess enthusiasts, librarians, women's clothing, carpenters, baseball aficionados, and on and on.

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