Trying to buy a car in Cuba can be as vexing as finding your way through a maze at night.
So a young Havana entrepreneur has decided to put some order to car sales in his homeland with a new site that allows users to browse for specific models, brands and years either on a computer or a smartphone.
Cubans willing to sell their cars can place an ad in AutoCubana.com. Launched last week, it is the first free classifieds website exclusively for the sale of cars on the island.
And although the astronomical prices of the cars listed on the site — up to 95,000 CUC (about $ 95,000) for a 2014 Audi — seems outrageous in a country where the official average median salary is about $25 a month, it’s creator is betting on a sector of the population he says has strong purchasing power.
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“These are crazy prices, but those are the market prices in Cuba,” said Nelson Rodríguez, 32, a University of Havana graduate in computer science. “In Cuba, an upper-middle class has emerged that can afford those prices. Some people are doing well with their businesses here, and others are doing well with their business here and in Miami.”
Rodríguez, who developed the project with an Australian partner, said that he does not charge a commission from transactions that result from a posting on the site. Currently, there is no license available on the island to work as a private dealer or a car sales broker like the one available for real estate agents, he said.
There also is no fee for posting a sale announcement on the site. Car sellers can upload the information and photos of the vehicle on their own.
The AutoCubana.com business model plan is to sell future ad space to private businesses with ties to transportation, Rodríguez said.
“This is the first phase. We want to give private businesses the opportunity to benefit first; private businesses like car washes, mechanics, taxi drivers and the like can advertise on the website,” he said.
Most of the cars running in the streets of Havana are American models built before 1959. The so-called almendrones are rumbling relics that have become an icon of the island and grabbed the attention of foreign visitors.
But at the end of 2013, the government of Raúl Castro lifted restrictions requiring Cubans to get special permits to buy cars, and the circulation of more modern cars has proliferated.
Nonetheless, the government has maintained a monopoly on the import and sale of modern cars with a tax of almost 100 percent of the price tag.
Before the regulations, Cubans could only buy and sell vehicles that were built before 1959. To buy a modern car from a government-owned dealership, even at staggering prices, Cubans had to get approval from the government and obtain a carta (an official letter)authorizing the purchase by those deemed worthy, including doctors, artists, athletes and others.
So, how do these almendrones list for on AutoCubana? The prices for the classic cars range from $15,000 to $50,000, depending on the car’s state of conservation.
A more modern car, like a Russian-made Lada, can list for $20,000. A 2006 Hyundai Accent has a price tag of $27,500, more than seven times its price in the United States.
So far, the new site only works for residents of Havana, but Rodríguez hopes to soon spread the service to the other 15 provinces. And although currently the primary focus is to serve Cubans on the island, Rodríguez expects foreigners will also be able to buy the coveted relics at some point in the future.
“With this platform, we don’t want to make a new car sales business, but to open a door to what already exists,” Rodríguez said.