Final destination Havana for London cab
CSC’s favourite London taxi driver, ‘Cuban Tony’, speaks to Kevin Ovenden
It’s not your average London cab. And Tony Caccavone is not your average London cabbie.
For 16 years his classic Fairway cab has turned heads and provoked many hundreds of conversations as he ferried people across the capital - liveried as it is in the colours and style of the Cuban national flag.
Now, in an act of extraordinary generosity, Tony is donating his cab to the famous Havana Motor Museum in the heart of the old city and is looking for help to ship it safely over there this February.
“This was the first ever cab in any national colours,” says Tony. “And it’s been permanently on the road since I decided to advertise my love for the island following my holiday to Cuba in 1996.”
Tony was born in 1943 in Camden and lived there for 40 years before moving to Enfield where he lives now.
For a large number of people he is known as “Cuban Tony”. It’s not only for the mobile talking point that is his cab. He has also over the years spoken hundreds of times on various London radio stations, explaining to listeners about Cuba and the island’s successes in health and education, and its struggle to stay independent despite the constant US blockade of the island.
He and the cab have also contributed greatly to Cuba Solidarity Campaign events over the years - a visual feature and a very practical means of getting campaign materials to stalls, vigils, protests and events.
Tony was born in working class Somers Town, behind Kings Cross and Euston stations in London, in 1943 and moved at an early age to “Little Italy” in nearby Clerkenwell, where he lived for 40 years, before moving to Enfield, north London.
His passion for Cuba, its people and the values it represents is infectious, while conveyed with a volley of facts and figures that are always accurate and well chosen.
“So much of the propaganda against Cuba really depends on a blanket of ignorance being drawn over the public,” says Tony. “That’s why a really big part of what we need to do is simply to present the truth and let it speak for itself.
“As well as that, it’s important to get the message to the people, rather than hoping the people will simply come to the message. That’s the thinking that went into the Cuban flag artwork on the cab. It’s also why I’ve put so much effort into getting the message out on phone-in shows that large numbers of people listen to.
“Over the years I’ve seen a shift. And things are nowhere near as bad in Britain as they are in the US, where the corporate interests dominate the media even more.
“A lot of that shift is down to the increasing number of people who have actually visited Cuba and had such a positive experience there. I get that all the time from passengers: ‘Oh yes, I was on holiday there last year. Lovely place. Lovely people.’
“It’s a very simple statement, but it is very important that more people have this experience and are thinking this way.”
Indeed it was the suggestion by a Canadian passenger that he take a holiday in Cuba in 1996 that led to Tony’s first visit and then, on his return, the Cuban cab.
“I’d always been progressive, voting Labour and so on,” says Tony. “But visiting Cuba really opened my eyes. This was at a very difficult time for the country following the fall of the Soviet Union.
“But you could see the commitment to health, education, welfare - to priorities that richer nations such as our own have long sidelined. I decided to play my part in promoting and defending that, particularly in resisting the inhuman US blockade. That’s where the cab came from.”
Within a year Tony had shipped his cab to Canada to take part in a blockade-busting convoy taking aid across the border, through the US and on to Cuba - raising awareness with each mile along the highway.
Tony recalls, “It was organised by Pastors for Peace, a US campaigning organisation that has done a lot of solidarity work with Cuba. Up to that point, the US customs authorities had always ruthlessly removed large amounts of aid from the convoy as it passed across from Canada.
“This was the first convoy to get through with all the aid intact. The presence of the cab helped in that, as it provided a focus for media interest and also symbolised the fact that even then the US embargo was not supported by people in Britain and across the globe.
Back in London the cab sparked countless conversations. “It’s been a real talking point with passengers over the years,” says Tony. “From actors and politicians to Joe Public; from the great to the not so good, it’s kicked off so many discussions.
“The vast majority have been positive. You’d be surprised at how many Americans have responded positively and are ashamed of their government’s position.
“A while back I picked up an American guy in a business suit on the Albert Embankment. I spoke to him about the blockade and how damaging it was.
“He listened for a bit and then said, ‘You know, I’ve just come from a meeting with your Foreign Office. Now I’m in a London cab. And this is the second time today I’ve been told that the US policy on Cuba is indefensible as well as counter-productive’”.
Of course, there have been the occasional negative reactions. “But they are few and far between,” says Tony. “I did pick up a couple of passengers in Camden once. They said they were Cuban. I started talking about what was great about the country. We’d not gone 300 yards when they asked me to stop so they could get out.
“It turns out they were Cuban-Americans. They paid the fare and told me I was totally ignorant. I took the fare and told them they had an identity crisis, as they had told me they were Cuban!”
There have been many celebrities and personalities in the back of Tony’s cab. Broadcaster Melvin Bragg was a recent passenger. He wrote about the unique experience of listening to Tony’s persuasive and informed patter about Cuba.
“I remember John Hurt, the actor, listening intently and taking a real interest,” says Tony. “Also Alan Rickman. He was very sympathetic. Often I’d have a current petition from CSC that I would ask people to sign.
“There was Gore Vidal, the US writer. He was progressive and utterly opposed to the US government’s stance.
“So a lot of well-known people, including politicians. But I think the big impact has just been on the average punter.
“Imagine last trains dropping off at Kings Cross of a night. Hundreds of people queuing at the rank. A cab comes up and does the U-turn past all of them to the front of the queue and they all see the Cuban flag and the words on the cab. That in itself has some impact.
“And over the last three to five years I’ve had more and more people say, ‘You know, cabbie, you’re right. Did you know they have free education there? Did you know they actually send doctors to other parts of the world?’
“So I think the work of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the unions and all the groups is having an impact. You see it from other cabbies too: ‘Hey Tony, I was in Cuba three months ago on holiday. Fabulous place. Will definitely go again.’ That kind of thing.”
After 16 years on the road, and with parts now a rarity, there’s no alternative to retiring the cab now from its campaign duties.
“I had the idea of getting it over to Cuba and contacted the motor museum,” says Tony. “They said they would love to have it there.
“I have to admit there is a tinge of sadness. It is like saying goodbye to an old friend. But the cab really belongs in Cuba. I think it will have an impact there as symbolising the solidarity work we are all engaged in and helping to strengthen the island’s resolve to demand self-determination.
“It will also embody the links between Cuba and London.”
The cab is due to be shipped in February and Tony is looking for help in meeting the £2,000 plus costs of transporting it.
“Whatever people can do to help would be greatly appreciated,” he says. “And I’m hoping we can have a big send off that can attract further attention.
“Over the years the cab has enabled to me to raise publicity in all sorts of ways. It opened the door to being on the BBC World Service to talk about Cuba. We recently had some coverage in the Metro. So I think it’s been really worthwhile.”
Anyone who has seen this roving advert for the gains Cuba has made and standing reproach to the US’s policy would surely agree.