Posted on Friday, 06.20.14
Fidel's former limos reborn as Havana taxicabs
BY PETER ORSI
HAVANA -- In a former life they were the "comandante's" cars: A fleet of
black, boxy, Soviet-made limousines that for years were at the disposal
of the presidency in Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Today the limos have been decommissioned and repurposed as Havana taxi
cabs, at the service of tourists who want a little slice of history to
go with their ride across town.
"When I tell (travelers) where the car came from, they sit in the seat
back there and ... stretch their legs and say, 'I can't believe it!'"
said Moises Suarez, 58, who has been behind the wheel of one of the
ex-presidential limos for the last three years.
The luxury automobiles were produced by Russian manufacturers GAZ and
ZIL in the 1960s and '70s. Those sent to Cuba reportedly included a
ZIL-111 convertible model that was the first of its kind to roll off the
assembly line, a personal gift to Castro from Soviet leader Nikita
They were often used to ferry around visiting dignitaries. At least one
of the limos was used occasionally by Castro himself, though he usually
preferred a military-style jeep for his own transportation needs.
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter paid a historic visit in 2002,
Castro — who always had a flair for stagemanship — picked him up at the
airport in a Soviet stretch despite the fact that by that time the
presidency had acquired a fleet of slick Mercedes Benzes.
Suarez, who drives for state-owned Cubataxi, said about 14 of the cars
passed into the hands of the company about five years ago, and 10 are
still on the road.
Many aspects of his GAZ-built Chaika — Russian for "seagull" — are
original, from the camel-colored headliner to the radio with its buttons
and knobs labeled in Cyrillic lettering. At some point a Mercedes engine
was swapped in, however, similar to the way that 1950s Detroit classics
in Havana are still running thanks to makeshift monkeywrenching.
On the driver's-side door, Suarez has affixed a small sign that says
"Smile, Jesus loves you" — a small irony for a country that was
officially atheist for decades under Castro (the policy was removed from
the constitution in the 1990s).
The limo seats six passengers in relative comfort. But despite the extra
leg room, it can hardly be considered a luxury ride anymore.
The faux wooden inlay is chipped and peeling, and the faded,
brown-floral upholstery emits a smell best described as musty with
perhaps a hint of stale cigar.
Still, it's a novel way to cruise down the seaside Malecon boulevard or
through Revolution Plaza, where a massive sculpture of Argentine-born
revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara gazes stone-faced from the
side of a building.
Suarez said fares are negotiable, from just a few bucks for a quick trip
to $100-$140 for an all-day road trip outside the capital.
On a recent morning, a group of Spanish tourists took turns having their
photo taken next to and inside the car as it sat parked beneath the
massive, pyramidal monument honoring Cuban independence hero Jose Marti.
"It's exciting to be able to get inside a historic piece of Cuba," said
Miquel Torres, who was visiting from Barcelona. "It's a very different
kind of car."
As Suarez drives through the city, heads turn constantly. Not only
tourists but also Cubans, who instantly recognize it as one of Fidel's
"A lot of drivers pull up next to me at stoplights," Suarez said. "They
start laughing and they say, 'You never imagined you would be driving
the comandante's car, eh?' 'You have a great car in your hands."
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter-Orsi
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