Russia’s war sanctions mean a struggle for Cuban car owners

ARTEMISA, Cuba (AP) — Francisco Pérez Rodríguez has a car problem — one that’s all too common for many Cubans.

He rebuilt the engine of his father-in-law’s Moskvich — one of tens of thousands of cars and other vehicles that have flocked to Cuba over the past half-century from its Cold War allies, the Soviet bloc, and later Russia.

It needs a new timing belt to run. But Pérez Rodríguez said that nowadays this is only possible in Russia. And flights there have been disrupted by Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Global restrictions on transportation and trade with Russia pose a particularly serious problem for Cubans, whose socialist government has lived under an embargo imposed by the nearby United States since the early 1960s. Hailing from far away Russia, much of the island’s truck, bus, car and tractor fleets are now aging and in need of spare parts.

And similar to Russian tourists, these parts are no longer arriving.

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

Even many of the iconic 1950s American classic cars that roll along the Havana shore have been modified over the years to use Russian engines and other parts.

Cuban statistics show that the island has around 20,000 vintage American cars and 80,000 to 100,000 Ladas.

“Everything is brought from Russia for the Ladas. A lot of people will be affected,” said Pérez Rodríguez, 57, who runs a lathe shop in Artemisa, southeast of Havana.

In addition to disrupting the important tourism industry and financial transactions with Russia, “the disruption to transportation will be a problem for Cuba in terms of spare parts,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at the American University in Washington, DC

“It will only make life more difficult, even if they find ways to circumvent these sanctions against Russia,” he said. “It’s getting more expensive; it will take more time and it will only make their economic situation worse.”

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Cuba’s economy has already been hit by tightened US 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.

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

The exact scale of the problem is difficult to measure because much of the parts trade takes place in the informal market — exchanges between individuals, said Pavel Vidal Alejandro, an economics professor at the Pontifical Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia. “Cubans have many visa-free travel restrictions to other countries, and Russia is one of the exceptions.”

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

Many found it easier to get the parts via trips to Florida, where some sellers specialized in importing Russian auto parts specifically for travelers to and from Cuba. Now the sanctions are making dealing with Russian banks and shipping more difficult.

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

Basilio Pérez is one of the Cubans (Cuba-Americans?) in Florida who often travel back to the island to visit family – so often that he still has an old Moskvitch standing there.

He said he hasn’t been able to find parts he needs to fix the car’s steering mechanism for the past few days — either in Florida or Cuba.

“People used to travel (in Cuba) and could find parts. Now there is nothing,” Pérez said.

Back in Artemisa, 69-year-old Humberto Santana showed up at Pérez Rodríguez’s workshop hoping to fix a crankshaft for his Russian-made truck. But since that was apparently impossible and there were no spare parts, he said he would try to find a Japanese engine instead and make it fit.

“The Cuban is always inventing something,” Santana said.

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

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