When you visit Cuba, there are three things you notice: The heat, the Yank tanks, and the Ladas. While the ancient Americans get the media attention, their Russian relatives toil in the background. This is their story.
Ask someone about the cars of Cuba, and if at first they don't tell you that they never left the resort, they'll probably talk about the old American cars. The Cadillacs. The Buicks. The Bel Airs. What they probably won't tell you is how the streets are flooded with Ladas. Lots of Ladas.
When President Kennedy strengthened the embargo against Cuba in 1962, it meant many things. It meant the price of the remaining Montecristo cigars in America probably skyrocketed. It also meant Cubans could no longer import new American cars, which forced them to make do with what they had. While many Cubans maintained their Motown metal, there was still a demand for new cars.
Enter Russia. Since the Cuban Revolution, Cuba and the Soviet Union had been allies. With Kennedy's embargo, that relationship tightened even more. Cubans and Soviets traded sugar, fuel, vodka, rum, cars, and hiding spots for missiles (Easy there, compañero!). One of the Soviet Union's major exports to Cuba in the 1970s and 80s was the Lada. The little car was based on designs from Fiat, and was so square that it almost made the Volvo unhip in comparison.
Today, like their American counterparts, the Ladas are reasonably maintained with Cuban ingenuity, not as a hobby, but as a necessity. With Czech engine swaps and bumpers from another mother, the Ladas carry their owners to work. They may not have seatbelts or air conditioning, but they're better than the cramped and crowded camel buses.
When you walk around Havana, they sit like little donkeys, nestled between the museums, the cafes, the cigar shops, the schools, the rum stores, the palm trees, and the monuments dedicated to the revolutionaries. The Ladas and the Yank tanks. Russians and Americans. There's no cold here.
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