Cuba's fleet of more than 30,000 pre-embargo - and therefore pre-1960 - automobiles is now considered a national treasure. Owners may sell them, but the cars cannot be taken off the island. No longer considered relics of Cuba's capitalist past, these classic cars are now valuable urban icons - as important to Havana and Santiago as the cable cars are to San Francisco, the gondolas to Venice, and the red double-decker buses to London.
Nowhere in the world are Detroit's old cars more beloved and pampered - "running on empty," but still running. The ingenuity of Cuban mechanics is now legend. They use Soviet-era replacement parts or make parts from scratch. Brake fluid? A mix of shampoo and vegetable oil works fine.
With original parts and converters, these cars could be restored to run more cleanly and efficiently, improving the quality of Havana's air to the benefit of walking Habaneros and those using more than a million two- and three-wheeled "HPVs" - human-powered vehicles.
"The market is definitely there for our part of the industry," said Jim Spoonhower of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a specialty auto-parts trade group. Shnitzler estimates that the market is worth up to $80 million.
President Obama certainly has more urgent priorities than Cuba, especially once the detention center at Guantanamo is closed. All the more reason, then, to delegate U.S.-Cuban relations to people-to-people exchanges. "Citizen diplomacy," writes Nancy Gilboy, head of the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, "is the right, if not the obligation, of the individual citizen to help shape U.S. international relations - one handshake at a time."
To jump-start U.S.-Cuban diplomacia de luces traseras - taillight diplomacy - legislation will be needed. Richard Lentinello, editor of Hemmings Motor News, has proposed a U.S.-Cuba Old Car Trade Agreement that would exempt car parts from the trade embargo, enabling Americans to ship or carry fan belts, ignition points, and other scarce components to Cuba. Such legislation would "add jobs in the U.S. ... and positively boost the automobile repair business in Cuba. It's a win-win," Lentinello said.
The Antique Automobile Club of America, which hosts the United States' largest old-car fair, in Hershey, Pa., each year, might well consider a similar fair in Hershey, Cuba - the town midway between Havana and Matanzas, established in 1917 by Milton Hershey.
Another benefit of old-car ambassadors is that they would help restore Detroit's flagship brands and 20th-century automotive achievement, rescued from oblivion by caring, talented Cubans. "The resourcefulness and ingenuity needed to keep a 1957 Plymouth Fury on the road deserves our respect," Don Chiofaro wrote in the Boston Herald.
Two books were especially well received at the 2004 Havana Book Fair: Richard Schweid's Che's Chevrolet, Fidel's Oldsmobile, and Christopher Baker's Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles. Both salute taillight diplomacy.
Now fast-forward to 2012, when Detroit's automakers (let's imagine) are invited back to Havana for trade talks.
"Bienvenido," says a Cuban minister, welcoming the Big Three's representatives. "We have a little plan, a propuesta for you and the Detroit autoworkers. We want Studebakers, Packards, Buicks, DeSotos, and Hudsons - new ones. Can you help us?"
John Dowlin is the cofounder of TailLight Diplomacy in Philadelphia.
E-mail John Dowlin at email@example.com.