Cuba is the second-nearest international neighbor to the U.S. without a shared land border* but decades of sanctions have created a county that's much different than our own, both socially and politically. Many individuals have already visited under one or more allowable exceptions (or the small part that's leased by the U.S. government) but driving in Cuba is much different than 90 miles away in Miami! And while AutoSlash can't help with booking rental cars in Cuba, we're happy to share details on the two primary questions: does a visitor from the U.S. really want to drive and can a visitor from a U.S. legally rent a car?
Question 1: Does the U.S. Visitor Really Want to Drive?
There are a few different means of transportation in Cuba and rental cars are just one option. However, roads and driver practices vary between the two countries, and roadways in Cuba are far more dangerous (statistically) than in the United States. Like Mexico, it's also one of the "cause an injury accident, stay in jail" nations and the U.S. Department of State's thoughts has some thoughts to share on driving in Cuba.
Road Conditions and Safety: Road accidents, many involving pedestrians and bicyclists, are now Cuba’s leading cause of death. Cuban authorities may prohibit drivers from leaving the country until claims associated with an accident are settled. Drivers found responsible for accidents resulting in serious injury or death may receive long prison sentences. U.S. citizen drivers are often found at fault for accidents they are involved in.
Drive with extreme care. Major streets are generally well-maintained, but secondary streets are not. Avoid driving at night as many roads are unlit. Emergency lights or signals are rare making it virtually impossible to detect hazards after dark. Street signage is insufficient and confusing. Many Cuban cars are old, in poor condition, and lack reliable safety equipment.
The principal Cuban east-west highway is in good condition but extends only part of the way from Havana to the eastern end of the island. Hazards – including unfenced livestock and farm vehicles – are common.
So a driver from the U.S. is "often found at fault", jail or detainment in the country is common if an accident is caused, and the leading cause of death in Cuba is road accidents. Road accidents are a cause of death in the rest of the world but are really far down the list. In the rest of the world, one's almost 15 times more likely to die of some form of cardiovascular disease, which makes the road accident death rate in Cuba particularly ludicrous. We would be happy to allow someone else to fill our transportation needs while in country!
Question 2: Can the Visitor Legally Rent a Car?
Here's where governments -- that of the United States and Cuba -- come into play. Ever notice that U.S. based companies don't provide rental car quotes for Cuba? There's a reason, and that reason existed before recent restrictions imposed by the U.S. government. The local rental car companies are owned by the Cuban government. And in some cases, "Cuban government" means "Cuban military". And in the era of Treasury Department financial controls, no company wants to give money to the Cuban government (directly or indirectly).
In November 2017, the U.S. government created a strict financial "Off-Limits List" for U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, regardless of reason. The list of banned locations includes:
entities and subentities under the control of, or acting for or on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit such services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba.
That list currently includes government entities and sub-entities ranging from government agencies to most major hotels, tourist agencies, some shopping malls, marinas, stores, and even companies making beverages, clothing, and rum.
The November 2017 list does not explicitly include rental car companies owned by the government/military. Those companies seem to be fair game for U.S. citizens at this time, as the U.S. government guidance states:
*** Entities or subentities owned or controlled by another entity or subentity on this list are not treated as restricted unless also specified by name on the list. ***
Right now (mid-November 2017), none of those rental car "subentities" is currently on the list. Of course, the U.S. government can change the list at any time. The best advice we can give to U.S. citizens hoping to travel to Cuba and rent a car? Practice hypervigilance, as a driver and as a consumer. As the rental car companies have connections to the government, we wouldn't be surprised if those entities ended up on the "Off-Limits List" in the future.
* From the first paragraph -- The nearest country to the United States without a land border is Russia.
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