Miami mechanic is Mr Fix-it for Russian cars in Cuba
By Zachary Fagenson and David Adams
MIAMI/HAVANA (Reuters) – Standing in his Miami-area shop surrounded by
spare tires, dashboard gauges, and bright-colored boxes in Russian
script, Fabian Zakharov taps his foot waiting for the static to pass on
a phone call from Cuba.
After a hurried conversation in Spanish, the Russian-born Zakharov walks
to a glass case packed with engine parts and eyes the myriad bolts on
“He needs them to attach the pistons. They’re a really specific size but
I can get them,” he says.
Zakharov, 40, is Miami’s go-to man for visiting Cubans or those with
family on the island who need parts for the thousands of Russian-made
Ladas and Moskvichs that dominate the country’s cracked streets,
alongside Fords and Chevys dating back to the 1950s.
The former Soviet Union began exporting its cheaply built models to Cuba
in the 1970s until production began to peter out a decade ago. Very
little evidence of Soviet influence remains in Cuba, except the spunky
little Russian cars, famous for rattling chassis but sturdy engines.
With state salaries pegged at barely $20 a month, few Cubans can afford
to buy new cars, so the parts business plays a crucial role in keeping
the aging models on the road.
The U.S. trade embargo prevents parts from being shipped to Cuba. But
Cubans visiting Miami can buy them take them back to the island, or have
U.S.-based relatives find someone traveling to Havana to take them.
Zakharov supports President Barack Obama’s recent step to normalize
relations between the U.S. and Cuba, even if it threatens to cut into
his Lada business. Improved U.S. ties and greater prosperity in Cuba
could mean a move to more modern imports like France’s Peugeot and South
Korea’s Kia which have begun to make inroads in the island.
Getting parts from the United States is cheaper than in Cuba, where
state-run stores sell them at four times the cost, said David Peña, a
mechanic and president of the Russian Car Club in Havana who drives a
souped-up, sporty red 1972 Lada 2101 that he fixed himself.
“You can find most things here,” Pena said referring to the constant
need for spare parts. “There are so many Ladas, but we have to be
inventive,” he added, noting that many Ladas end up being repaired with
cannibalized parts, often from other makes.
His own Lada has a Fiat engine and an extra Alfa Romeo carburetor.
Havana chef Alberto Perez recently put a Peugeot diesel engine into his
Zakharov became a conduit for the parts after arriving in the U.S. in
2006. He was born in Moscow but raised in Cuba’s central city of
Camaguey where his father was an economics professor.
Once in the United States, Zakharov, an electrical engineer, learned his
experience on the island meant nothing, forcing him to start anew.
“When I came here I never thought my business would be spare parts,” he
said. “Then friends from Cuba started calling me.”
A Spanish and Russian speaker with Cuban and Russian passports, Zakharov
seemed ideally suited for the job and started ordering parts via mail
In 2011 he visited Moscow to partner with distributors who shipped him
his first container that year. Soon he realized he needed to double the
size of his store in Hialeah, the Miami suburb that has become the heart
of the city’s Cuban community.
Now customers from all over Miami and Latin America flood his shop with
so many requests he can barely keep up.
One longtime Miami customer, Alberto Perez, 47, has spent about $7,000
keeping his 1985 gray Lada in running condition after leaving it with
his family in Pinar del Rio, Cuba in 2002 when he left the island.
“There’s no way I could have restored the car from scratch without the
parts I’ve obtained from Fabian,” he said.
(Reporting by David Adams in Havana, Zachary Fagenson and Francisco
Alvarado in Miami; Editing by Jill Serjeant and David Gregorio)
Source: Miami mechanic is Mr Fix-it for Russian cars in Cuba – Yahoo