Fernando Sardiñas uses his weekends to work as an illegal taxi driver in Havana. He does it in his loyal but beaten up Moskvich, a car from the Soviet era that continues running thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of its owner. But also thanks to the spare parts Sardiñas manages to find through a friend who frequents a business on the other side of the Florida Straits.
The business is located at about 229 miles away from Sardiñas’ house — in Hialeah. Here, at the epicenter of exile, a creative and able entrepreneur of Russian-Cuban origin, Fabián Zakharov, implemented an idea that not only has surpassed his expectations but has also opened up wide-range, mid-term possibilities.
“It came to mind when we needed to get a part for one of those little cars, a Lada 1600,” said Zakharov, a 38-year-old electrical engineer. “I found the part, and someone sent it to him in Cuba.”
Zakharov lived in Russia with his parents during his early childhood. Then he went back to the island and finally ended up setting up shop in South Florida six years ago.
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The beginning was complicated. Zakharov could have found a job associated to his profession or perhaps pursue another career. However, fate and the necessities of the Cuban auto-parts demands took him on a different path.
“The most extravagant thing they have asked me is to bring a complete Lada,” Zakharov said from his shop at 552 Hialeah Drive. “But we work with spare parts that can be adapted mainly to models of the 1990s and the 2000s.”
Zakharov acknowledges that the need for original spare parts for automobiles in Cuba, like the classic Lada and Moskvich, has been growing as the economy on the island has tightened.
In an attempt to downsize bureaucracy and improve productivity in state resources, the Cuban government announced a labor reorganization. The government also ordered the gradual layoff of hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide, 10 percent of the workforce. Another million state workers could be laid off in the next few years.
In the context of the economic adjustments, there are openings for foreign capital as well as expanding self-employment in dozens of categories.
Cuban-Americans who travel to Cuba to visit their families take spare auto parts and other needed items in their luggage. Others hire specialized agencies that can use a recently established direct and regular maritime shipment of merchandise, a first in the 50 years of a U.S. embargo against the island. The service allows transporting merchandise that Washington categorizes as “humanitarian aid,” which includes medicine and clothes, electric appliances and furniture, even construction material and automobile spare parts.
Zakharov has increased gradually the size and type of spare parts available for his Cuban clientele and customers in Latin America and Europe. His inventory includes Aleko parts, as well as cylinders, brakes and complete kits to repair Lada engines for models 1600, 2105 and 2107, among others.
“We have paid for three containers from Russia to Miami and are working on the fourth one,” Zakharov said. “We are analyzing opening another shop in Miami because there is ample demand.”
According to Cuban-American exiles and residents who send packages to family and friends in Cuba, the auto-parts service provides an exchange that favors Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Luis García, who lives in Southwest Miami-Dade County, said that he is renting various Lada cars in Havana. A couple of them recently needed transmission maintenance, which required a kit of original spare parts.
“In Cuba, we talk about a scarcity of parts that, when you find them, they charge the price they want,” García said. In that context, he added that a carburetor could cost $150 in Miami while in Havana it can easily reach a price of $230.
Disney Serras started in this line of business three years ago. Serras is the owner of MZParts Miami, 5706 W. Flagler St., which sells spare parts for automobiles and motorcycles. He focuses on the sale of parts for Lada, Jupiter and MZ, Java and Karpaty. His business is regularly visited by clients who need a part right away.
“I started out with something really small,” Serras said. “Our initial inventory was $300 and now we handle more than $500,000. This should give you an idea of the existing demand.”