The return of the Lada

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Cuba Trade Magazine Lada Julienne Gage

Havana residents attempt to repair the window of a Lada. Photo by Julienne Gage.

Cuba’s most iconic cars may be Chevrolets from the 1950s, but the vehicles the Communist government has long used to transport government officials and reward hardworking employees is the Russian Lada.

Cuba stopped importing Ladas from 2005 to 2017, and the older models are relics that spew diesel, jump gears, and sometimes have holes worn into the metal floors. Still, they can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, a steal compared to the hundreds of thousands it costs for a new, imported car.

Now, in an effort to get more cars on the road and lower the costs of public transportation, Cuba recently purchased more than 300 new Lada Vestas and Lada Largas Cross vehicles from Russian automaker AtvoVAZ. The Ministry of Transportation said they’ll be used for a new state-run collective taxi program.

Cuba aspires to create a more modern, affordable, and environmentally-friendly mass transit system, but that’s a long way off. Right now, new cars are a quick fix, said Cuba’s Vice Minister of Transportation Eduardo Rodriguez Dávila. But he insists the embargo still makes it nearly impossible to import cars from the Americas, especially considering Cuba’s limited financing options.

Cuba Trade Magazine Lada Julienne Gage

Havana residents attempt to repair the window of a Lada. Photo by Julienne Gage.

“These vehicles are acquired through manufacturers who are willing to work with Cuba, manufacturers who are willing to create the conditions in Cuba for these vehicles to last,” he said, adding that Cuba welcomes the return of the Lada because its manufacturer is “willing to bet on the Cuban market again.”

Having earned a college degree in mechanical engineering in Russia in 1991, Rodriguez Dávila is familiar with Ladas. He says they’ve endured because the parts didn’t change through the years, and with so many Ladas on the roads, parts were easy to find. The newer Ladas, however, will require specialized state mechanics.

The classic Lada’s quirks are a point of shared humor for many Cubans, and almost every person has a Lada story. Recently, a Cuban visiting her family in Havana asked to drive the family’s 1980s Lada from the airport to her home.

The mother protested, explaining that since the car skips second gear, she would experience a lot of lurching through the city – although the ride on the expressway leading into it would be smooth. From the passenger’s side, her sister joked “it’s really more of a race car.”

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