Miami mechanic is Mr Fix-it for Russian cars in Cuba

Wed Feb 11, 2015 9:48am EST
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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 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.   Continued...

A woman walks past a Moskvich car in front of Fabian Zakharov's Zakharov Auto Parts shop in Hialeah, Florida, February 4, 2015. REUTERS/Javier Galeano