Tue Sep 29, 2009 1:13am EDT
By Esteban Israel
HAVANA (Reuters) - After three decades as the favored car of Cuban
nomenklatura, the austere, Russian-built Lada has spotted a Chinese
rival in its rear-view mirror.
Ministers, communist officials and police are switching their Ladas,
with its stiff manual steering, for the smooth hydraulics of the
Chinese-made Geely CK, a modern sedan that symbolizes the island's new
alliance with Beijing.
China, now Cuba's second-largest trading partner behind only Venezuela,
has shown an ability to quickly penetrate and dominate markets around
the world with many of its products.
But Cubans say their love for Ladas, which are probably the most visible
legacy of the country's Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union, will
keep the cars on Cuban roads.
"I do not think it will be easy to displace the Lada," said David Pena,
a 39-year old mechanic who recently founded Cuba's Russian Automobile
Club. "For us this car is like a family member."
Cuba is well known for the vintage American cars that prowl its streets,
relics of pre-revolutionary Cuba and rolling tributes to the islanders'
But the truth is they are greatly outnumbered by Ladas, of which there
are an estimated 100,000 in Cuba, compared to somewhere around 60,000 of
the old U.S. cars.
The Geelys, based on a Daewoo design and powered by a 1.5-liter engine
licensed from Toyota Motor Corp, have begun showing up with increasing
frequency on Havana streets.
They have a sleek and stylish look and come with air conditioning,
electric windows and CD players.
The Chinese cars are so far showing up in very limited numbers, as
government vehicles and rental cars, but their ranks are expected to
increase in a sign of China's growing economic relationship with Cuba
and business interests on the island.
Geely, China's biggest privately owned car maker whose worldwide
strategy has been founded on exporting low-cost vehicles, shipped more
than 1,500 cars to Cuba this year through June, the Miami Herald
reported on its website.
But the no-frills Lada, based on the Fiat 124 from the 1960s, has become
a cult object in Cuba for both its utility and its enduring presence.
Pena and dozens of other Lada die-hards gather every month in Lenin Park
on the outskirts of Havana to talk about and show off their cars.
The Soviet Union took Cuba under its wing in 1961, two years after Fidel
Castro rose to power in a 1959 revolution, and until its implosion in
1991 showered the communist-led island with billions of dollars in
subsidies and goods, including the Lada.
From the time it arrived in the 1970s, the car, so spartan it does not
even have hubcaps, was a good fit for economically challenged Cuba.
It was inexpensive, and earned a reputation as a durable car that, when
repairs were needed, was easy to repair.
"Anyone can fix it with just a piece of wire," said Carlos, a veteran
mechanic in Havana. "If you ask a Cuban he will tell you he does not
want to exchange his Lada for anything in the world."
There are those who doubt that the new Geelys, flashier but not imbued
with the Lada's image of tank-like solidity, will last as long on Cuba's
"They are changing (our Ladas for Geelys) but I don't think the Chinese
cars will be as resistant as the Lada," said a police officer leaning
against his white Lada patrol car along Havana's sea wall. "Only time
Cars tend to be cherished in countries where they are not easy to get,
which is the case in Cuba.
A government minister must give approval for someone to buy a car
legally, and in most cases even when it is purchased, it still belongs
to the state.
Only people who bought a car before the revolution or those who
afterward were granted the right to purchase one for personal or
political achievements actually own their vehicles.
For those who get permission, a new, basic Lada can be bought for the
equivalent of about $5,000 U.S. A black market exists, where the
purchaser buys the car for about three times the normal price, but it
remains registered in the name of the original owner.
Cubans show their love for Ladas by making them a showcase for creativity.
Some have covered their dashboards with precious woods, installed
powerful engines with souped-up carburetors or even reinvented the
original Soviet design by welding together two cars to build an
improbable Lada limo.
"Our wives often complain because we dedicate so much time and money to
our Ladas," said Manuel Ares, who is vice president of the Russian
The cars on Cuban streets reflect Cuba's political history, with the
long Soviet presence, a lingering American influence and, currently,
growing ties with China.
Russia and Cuba have been warming their old friendship, which may soon
show up on Cuban roads.
Russia has talked about building a Lada plant in Cuba to sell cars
throughout Latin America, but the project has been put on hold by the
In the meantime, there are plans to import thousands of new Ladas to
Cuba, the Russians have said.
For Carlos the mechanic, that only confirms what he already believes.
"The Lada will never die (in Cuba)," he said, "It has become a classic."
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman)
Russian Lada gets Chinese rival on Cuban roads | Special Coverage |
Reuters (29 September 2009)