The Russian Car Parts Connection in Cuba

By Istvan Ojeda Bello  (Progreso Semanal)

HAVANA TIMES — “Minus eleven degrees!” is Ania’s first remark about Moscow. She doesn’t dwell on it too long, but talks about her stay in Russia and that of many more like her who the technical health of a significant fleet of private cars in Cuba rely upon.

It’s her first time doing this, although it’s not the first time she’s felt out of place. Ania was lucky. She didn’t make the journey alone; Pavel was there, her partner, with a lot more flight time doing these errands.

“There, things have gradually been adjusting because there are a lot of Cubans. When you get to Moscow, taxi drivers or someone is always waiting for you to take you to the flat that you’ve rented out to stay at for the few days you’re out there. This really makes things easier because you don’t know the entire city and they do, especially where the cheapest markets are,” Pavel says.

What shall I buy?

On your outbound journey, empty suitcases, only a bit of rice, sugar and beans, to give that home taste to your meals. In both of their minds, there are three essential ranges of products that they want to take back: cell phones, the not to be missed fashions which include shoes, jeans, perfume, costume jewellery or lingerie and also car parts with confusing names.

For Ania, “going out to buy is about thinking things through beforehand. It’s remembering what people told you to buy and a little bit of common sense. All goods have their moment and everything always ends up selling sooner or later. Of course, when it comes to clothes, you have to know what’s in fashion right now.”

“This began,” Pavel tells us, “when Cubans who were living in Russia saw an opportunity because you could take 120 kgs, as planes used to travel empty. Now, they are coming full of people and so they’ve had to reduce the weight of allowed baggage. So, they force you to send things in freight shipments.”

Price list.

Both of them specify though, that with car parts, the trend doesn’t seem to change in terms of makes and preferences, as Russia will continue being the main source of replacement parts that keep the Soviet manufactured vehicles on the road in Cuba.

Not needing a valid visa between both countries has facilitated the process, even more so when closer destinations like Ecuador stopped being an option. The Russian destination has a specific purpose as the point of origin where the original manufacturers of parts specifically made for Ladas and Moskvitch cars, which in past decades arrived to Cuba by the thousands, are located.

“Parts for these two are the most solicited,” Pavel confirms. “Lada 2107 dashboards, for example, because everybody wants to put in the most modern accessories.”

Needs and realities

Up until 1991, the favorable economic relations with the USSR gave some Cuban citizens the opportunity to buy a car for a relatively affordable price or to receive them as bonuses from the labor unions. Later, they had access to parts at stores that used to exist for this purpose. The fall of the Soviet Union put at end to this ease of access and while the State then began to modernize the vehicle market, for individual owners, it hasn’t been such a simple matter.

Since 2011, the Cuban government authorized the buying and selling of private vehicles and then in 2013 it approved new legal regulations for importing and selling this kind of products, however, there weren’t any similar actions which allowed for the maintenance of those apparently “out of fashion” vehicles, which keep running miraculously thanks to their owners.

In fact, the GECOMEX Foreign Trade Business Group’s 2013 plans called for trying to order the small group of State companies authorized to import spare parts and pieces for transport, which are then bought by their counterparts in the country’s interior. Clearly, the Cuban State’s plan is heading in the direction of updating the nation’s car market by introducing more current makes of cars. Therefore, satisfying the needs of customers who have old cars doesn’t seem to be a priority or profitable.

Cuban Customs has the same policy, although ironically they tend to keep the most ancient of cars running. In March 2010, regulations from April 2009 were revoked which allowed Cubans, for a short period of time, to replace their old cars with new imported cars. And later in September 2014, three resolutions from the Customs Office and one from the Finance and Prices Ministry restricted imports even further, authorizing parts for a small number of cars which were considered non-commercial. In spite of everything, Cuban reality is telling us something very different.

Fregando el carro.

A few years ago, Alejandro Gonzalez decided to buy a Moskvitch for short trips with his family and to receive his father-in-law properly when he visits from the United States. On the domestic market, according to ads I took a look at, prices of old cars of this make were an average of 14,000 CUC; its “brother car” the used Ladas are sold for an average of 15,000 CUC (16,500 USD)

“Of course I would have liked to have bought a modern car! However, putting comfort and profitability into the mix, Russian cars are still the better option. Plus, finding parts you need won’t be a problem in the near future,” he assures me.

Are they cheap, then? “No,” Alejandro clarifies, “they’re just cheaper. For example, changing all four shock-absorbers cost me 120 CUC, if they had been of a more modern make, I would have paid the same amount just for one.”

Only Russia?

Parts for Soviet cars were already coming from the United States, at least from 2009 onwards. Fabian Zakharov would have been one of the first, according to a news report in 2012. “We have paid for three containers from Russia to Miami and this will be our fourth,” he said back then.

The official version of the history of Zakharov Auto Parts on its official website states that “we began to see the opportunity to offer original spare parts for European cars to customers in South American countries at the beginning of 2010.” Today, they claim to be “the no.1 authorized importer of original Russian parts on the continent,” and that they have “a group of 49 employees distributed across our logistics network in Europe and the United States.”

On public forums such as, at least thirty sales offers and requests to buy can be found, which relate to USSR manufactured car parts or entire cars. In fact, one of the advertisers claims to have a range of 35 different parts within Cuba.

Go back, go back…

“When I get over my fear of planes, I go and come back,” Ania states. Not without suggesting first that “in some way or another, this is a service we are providing for people and especially vehicle owners. If we were given the oppportunity to set up shop, there would be many of this kind and they would’t be opened with State capital but with private investments.”

Pavel also has a conclusion: “we fly all those miles to Russia in order to satisfy a need on the Cuban market.” And from the looks of things, they are succeeding.

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