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Russia war sanctions mean a struggle for Cuban car owners

Juan Zamorano and Gisela Salomon
Associated Press

Artemisa, Cuba – Francisco Pérez Rodríguez has a car problem – one that’s starting to be all too common for many Cubans.

He’s been rebuilding the engine of his father-in-law’s Moskvich – one of tens of thousands of cars and other vehicles that poured into Cuba from its Cold War allies in the Soviet bloc and later Russia over the past half century.

A vintage Russian-made Lada car passes the Russian Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral in Havana, Cuba, Friday, April 1, 2022.

More: Events in the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Friday, April 1, 2022

To run, it needs a new timing belt. But Pérez Rodríguez said that’s something only available these days in Russia. And flights there have been disrupted by Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Global restrictions on transport and trade with Russia pose an especially serious problem for Cubans, whose socialist government has lived since the early 1960s under an embargo imposed by the nearby United States. Much of the island’s fleets of trucks, buses, cars and tractors came from distant Russia and are now aging, in need of parts.

Leandro Cueto poses for a portrait with his car, a Russian 1986 Lada, at his home in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2019. Cueto said he bought the car new in 1986, which requires repairs every five years, and has repainted it once.

And much like Russian tourists, those parts are no longer arriving.

Transportation in Cuba can be difficult in the best of times. Buses have often been in short supply, cargo trucks are sometimes pressed into service for rural passengers and the streets are filled with Russian-made Ladas, Niva SUVs and Jeep-like Uazs.

Even many of the legendary 1950s-vintage American cars that roll along Havana’s waterfront have been modified over the years to use Russian engines and other parts.

A driver navigates a vintage, Russian-made Lada station-wagon past the Capitol in Havana, Cuba, Friday, April 1, 2022.

Cuban statistics indicate the island has about 20,000 old American cars and 80,000 to 100,000 Ladas.

“For the Ladas, everything is brought from Russia. Many people are going to be affected,” said Pérez Rodríguez, 57, who operates a lathe workshop in Artemisa, just southeast of Havana.

Along with disruption of the key tourism industry and financial transactions with Russia, “the interruption of transportation is going to be a problem for Cuba in terms of spare parts,” said William LeoGrande, an expert on Cuba at the American University in Washington, D.C.

In this November 1999 file photo, mechanic William Escalante repairs an old Russian-made Moskvitch car in Havana's Centro Habana neighborhood. Ladas and Moskvitch cars are the two Soviet-era vehicles that are mainstays on Cuban roads. But parts can be expensive or hard to come by, even when there aren't global restrictions on transport and trade with Russia.

“This just makes life even harder, even if they find ways to work around these sanctions on Russia,” he said. “It is going to be more expensive; it is going to be more time consuming, and it is just going to make their economic situation worse”

Cuba’s economy already has been slammed by tightened U.S. sanctions under the Trump administration and by the coronavirus pandemic.

Manuel Taboada, a 26-year-old taxi driver in Old Havana, is already worried about his own Lada.

A vintage Russian-made Lada car, right, parks in Havana, Cuba, Friday, April 1, 2022.

“Now with the mess of the war, with everything that is happening, it will have a big effect because they can’t travel and they can’t bring things in,” Taboada said. “Honestly, we don’t know how we are going to end up because there are specific parts for this car.”

The exact scale of the problem is difficult to measure because much of the trade in parts occur in the informal market – exchanges between individuals, said Pavel Vidal Alejandro, an economics professor at the Pontifical Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia. “The Cubans have a lot of restrictions on travel without a visa to other countries, and Russia is one of the exceptions.”

“Even with the distance and the cost that implies in terms of travel, it was a market from which came goods” both for the formal market and for self-employed Cubans, he said.

Many found it easier to get the parts via trips to Florida, where some sellers specialized in importing Russian car parts specifically for people travelling to and from Cuba. Now sanctions on dealings with Russian banks and on shipping complicate that as well.

A Russian Moscovich car drives past the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

“There is more demand; it has risen about 80%,” said Roberto Hernández, owner of MZ Miami, a shop that sells parts for Ladas as well as motorcycles and bicycles.

Basilio Pérez is one of the Cubans (Cuban-Americans?) in Florida who often make the trip back to the island to visit family – so often that he still has an old Moskvich there.

He said he’d been unable in recent days to find parts he needs to fix the car’s steering mechanism – either in Florida or in Cuba.

“Before, people (in Cuba) travelled and could find parts. Now there is nothing,” Pérez said.

Back in Artemisa, 69-year-old Humberto Santana turned up at Pérez Rodríguez’s workshop hoping to repair a crankshaft for his Russian-made truck. But with that apparently impossible, and no replacement parts, he said he’d try to find a Japanese engine instead and make it fit.

“The Cuban always invents,” Santana said.

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Salomon reported from Miami. AP journalists Milexsy Duran and Andrea Rodríguez contributed from Havana.