War Sanctions on Russia Mean a Struggle for Cuban Car Owners

ARTEMISA, Cuba (AP) — Francisco Pérez Rodríguez has a problem with his car, one that is becoming all too common for many Cubans.

He has been rebuilding the engine of his father-in-law’s Moskvich, one of tens of thousands of cars and other vehicles that came to Cuba from its Cold War allies in the Soviet bloc and then Russia over the last half century.

To work, you need a new timing belt. But Pérez Rodríguez said that is something that is only available these days in Russia. And flights there have been disrupted by Western sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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

And just like the Russian tourists, those parts are no longer coming.

Transportation in Cuba can be difficult at the best of times. Buses have often been in short supply, cargo trucks are sometimes put into service for rural commuters and the streets are filled with Russian-made Lada, Niva SUVs and Jeep-type Uazes.

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

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

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

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

“This just makes life even more difficult, even if they find ways around these sanctions on Russia,” he said. “It will be more expensive; It’s going to take longer, and it’s only going to make your financial situation worse.”

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Cuba’s economy has already been affected by the tightening of US sanctions under the Trump administration and by the coronavirus pandemic.

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

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

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

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

Many found it easier to get the parts through trips to Florida, where some dealers specialized in importing Russian auto parts specifically for people traveling to and from Cuba. Now, sanctions on dealings with Russian banks and shipments complicate that too.

“There is more demand; it’s gone up like 80%,” said Roberto Hernández, owner of MZ Miami, a store that sells parts for Ladas, as well as motorcycles and bicycles.

Basilio Pérez is one of those in Florida who often makes the trip back to the island to visit family, so often that he still has an old Moskvich there.

He said that in recent days he has not been able to find the parts he needs to repair the car’s steering gear, neither in Florida nor in Cuba.

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

Back in Artemisa, Humberto Santana, 69, showed up at Pérez Rodríguez’s shop hoping to repair a crankshaft on his Russian-made truck. But with that seemingly impossible, and no spare parts, he said he would try to find a Japanese engine in his place and fit it.

“Cubans always invent,” Santana said.

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

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