Quick — when you think of Cuba, what’s a typical image that comes to mind? Maybe it’s one of those vintage Chevys or Pontiacs from the 1950s in all the tourist photos. But if you go to the island, keep your eyes out for the other car — the Russian Lada. It’s the boxy, no-frills, Soviet-era vehicle that looks like an old Fiat.
It's rare to see one in the United States, but Fabian Zakharov has one in Miami. And when he needed a new brake pump for it a few years ago, he couldn’t find one—and had to go through the cumbersome process of ordering it from Russia.
Courtesy of Fabian Zakharov
Then, he noticed that his Cuban expats friends in Miami had the same need for Russian parts, too, but for cars that their relatives drove in Cuba.
In Cuba, Ladas still chug around the island — relics from when trade with the Soviets was brisk. Yet when the USSR fell, so did the Lada trade, and spare parts became rare or expensive in Cuba.
(Listen to what a Lada sounds like)
Zakharov spotted a niche market. He began small, working from his computer at home helping his Cuban expat friends, one by one, order parts from Russia so that they could take them to Cuba. With demand steady, Zakharov then flew to Russia and struck agreements with car parts manufacturers there.
Today, he runs his own store in Hialeah, a heavily Cuban area just outside Miami.
Not everyone understands Zakharov’s business. “My family and friends say all the time, ‘You’re crazy! How do you sell these spare parts in the United States, if in the United States don’t have any cars like these?’”
Yet he’s proving them wrong.
Today, Zakharov is considered the Lada whisperer. Since he was born in Moscow, but raised in Cuba, he’s a bridge between Russian suppliers and his Cuban expat customers.
Throughout the day, business is steady. When there is a lull, Zakharov keeps up with the shop's active Facebook page. But he hopes better US-Cuba relations will let him ship directly to Cuba one day and expand his business. “I would be happy if my company moved to Cuba because there are a lot of cars to service with my spare parts,” he says.
But he doesn’t expect politicians to broker big changes anytime soon. “For now, it’s only conversation,” he says. “We need to wait.”
Courtesy of Fabien Zakharov