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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 the shelves.
“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 1982 Lada.
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 from Russia.
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