Cuban NostalgiCar partners with Airbnb for behind-the-scenes experience for car lovers

Before Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution, Julio Alvarez Torres’ father was a General Motors mechanic. Alvarez studied mechanical engineering, and his father’s passion for 1950s-era American cars never left him. 

In 2010, Raul Castro embraced the cuentapropismo, a series of market-based reforms allowing the entrepreneurial sector to grow. Alvarez started to drive tourists from the Hotel Nacional around Havana in his 1955 Chevy Bel Air.

About a year later, he and his business partners formed the NostalgiCar Group with a gleaming fleet of about 22 classic cars. Russian engines and homemade parts hid under the hoods of the classic beauties. 

When then-President Barack Obama opened the doors to Cuba after 56 years of limitations, most American tourists were attracted to the vintage cars. The flurry of tourists included Madonna, the Kardashians, Karl Lagerfeld and Beyonce. Even for them, the allure of taking a ride around Havana’s seafront Malecón esplanade in a classic convertible was irresistible.

“We did very well,” Alvarez said. 

They were able to refurbish more cars at their Garaje NostalgiCar. The family business grew. Even the Fast & Furious franchise took notice of Havana’s iconic classic cars. But it all came to an abrupt halt after President Donald Trump was elected. His world of sonic attacks, travel warnings and new regulations put a stop to the flow of U.S. dollars.

“There is a great scarcity of tourists,” Alvarez said. 

Alvarez believes their Cuban ingenuity and perseverance will keep them afloat. Despite the U.S. embargo’s blockade on original parts, they have been able to maintain a 1956 pink-and-white Bel Air they refer to lovingly as Lola. Someone in Canada helped them with their website and someone in Miami helped them to find car parts. 

Alvarez’s wife, Nidialys Acosta Cabrera, deals with the marketing. They are offering city tours, country tours and full-time rentals. They are finding some success with the Airbnb experiences, a package deal for tourists who might want to also visit their Garaje NostalgiCar, a workshop full of secrets.

The tourists who get to visit the garage where the magic happens learn about the process of restoring a rusty monster to its former glory. Chuck Cihak, who was visiting from San Francisco, was marveling at the vintage cars’ shine. He appreciates Alvarez’s passion for brightly colored, mint-condition beauties. 

 “It just brings back old memories of being a little kid, being able to experience the shop, talk to the owner, just to see his enthusiasm,” Cihak said. “This is the change that is coming to Cuba. You can’t stop it.” 

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U.S. companies continue to find opportunities in Cuba despite embargo

Companies in the United States continue to develop strategies to do business with the Cuban government despite the U.S. embargo’s aim to isolate the Communist island from the global economy. 

Deere & Company, the Illinois-based leading maker of John Deere farm and construction equipment, started to consider the potential of the market after former President Barack Obama moved to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba three years ago. They just signed a deal. 

“We expect several hundred machines and associated implements to enter into the Cuban market over the next roughly four years,” said Charles Stamp Jr., Deer & Company’s vice president of corporate strategy and business development. 

Despite the U.S.-Cuba changes in diplomatic relations under President Donald Trump, the presence of U.S. companies has been strong during the Feria Internacional de la Habana, or FIHAV, Cuba’s most important commercial fair. It’s being held this week in Havana from Monday to Friday. 

A little-known exception allows U.S. companies to sell food to Cuba’s state-owned company, but not on credit, which puts U.S. producers at a disadvantage in the global market. State-owned company Alimport has used this demand to help garner support against the U.S. embargo from lawmakers. The U.S. has eased commerce restrictions. 

Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bail Gooden had a booth at the fair. There were pictures showing industrial farming and a sign in Spanish: “The agricultural and livestock abundance of Virginia.”

“We are working with our representatives in Washington, D.C., letting them know how important we feel that free and open trade, certainly with Cuba, will be mutually beneficial,” Gooden said. 


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Amid UN’s condemnation of embargo, U.S. businesses find ways to do business in Cuba

Some entrepreneurs are finding ways to defy the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Some are getting licenses from the U.S. Commerce Department instead of trying to get approval from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo.

Most recently, Cuba and two U.S. companies signed a deal that will allow for artisanal charcoal from Cuba to be sold at local supermarkets in South Florida. Craig Litherland, president of Coabana Holdings, said he thinks these type of deals benefit everyone. 

The Cuban government also recently approved a deal to allow Rimco, a Puerto Rican company, to open a Caterpillar dealership at the Port of Mariel’s special development zone next year. The military-controlled Almacenes Universales runs the port’s special development zone. 

“Cuba has a lot of potential,” Rimco Vice President Caroline McConnie said. 

The business deals were signed before the United Nations condemned the U.S. economic embargo on Wednesday. The United States and Israel were the only two countries of the 193-member General Assembly to vote against the resolution

The resolution, which sends a strong message to U.S. lawmakers, is unenforceable. The blockade happened after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, nationalized U.S. businesses in Cuba without compensation in 1960 and declared his allegiance to the Soviets as a Marxist-Leninist in 1961. 

Last year was the first time the U.S. abstained from voting. This year there was a change in policy under President Donald Trump. 

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday the U.S. was going to continue to oppose the resolution “as long as the Cuban people continue to be deprived of their human rights and fundamental freedoms” and “as long as the proceeds from trade with Cuba go to prop up the dictatorial regime responsible for denying those rights.”

The UN has been calling for the end of the blockade every year since 1991. The U.S. response after the first resolution passed was to strengthen the blockade with The Helms-Burton Act, which punished the countries trading with Cuba. In 2001, after Hurricane Michelle, the U.S. agreed to start selling food to Cuba.  

In 2006, President Raul Castro, 86, took power from Fidel Castro. Three years later, President Barack Obama announced that he was lifting restrictions on remittances and travel for those who still had family on the island. He also allowed telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba. 

Trump was elected a few weeks before Fidel Castro’s death last year. In June, Trump ordered a ban on deals with the Cuban military, which controls oil exploration, the ports and the tourism industry. 

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Haley was speaking on behalf of “an imperialist power behind the majority of those wars being waged today.” Rodriguez also said Trump “will be one more president implementing a policy that means a return to the past.”

Before the Wednesday vote, a group of 10 Senate Democrats asked Trump to abstain from voting on the UN resolution. They all signed a letter to Trump saying a dissenting vote would not “reflect the will of the American people, nor would it represent the voices of hundreds of U.S. companies.”

U.S. and Cuban diplomats continue to disagree about an ongoing investigation into “sonic attacks” that the U.S. reported left Americans in Havana injured. 

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Customers line up for cinnamon rolls as Knaus Berry Farm reopens for season

For decades, Knaus Berry Farm has kicked off fall in South Florida by opening up shop, and on Tuesday, scores of people waited in line for hours just to get inside.

“How many businesses can close for six months and really, without any advertisement, open up and people are there waiting for you?” Thomas Blocher, of Knaus Berry Farm, said. 

Lines wrapped around the corner on Tuesday, the first day Knaus Berry farm re-opened for the season.

“It’s worth the cinnamon rolls, it’s worth the bread, it’s worth everything,” customer Cindy Trujillo said. 

“It’s cinnamon rolls. Of course it’s worth it,” another customer, Irina Rivera, said. “I’m going to take a couple just to make the trip even more worth it.”

The farm closes its doors in April after strawberry season ends until it’s time to fire up the bakery and welcome people back.

Every year, people line up on opening day, but not even the bakery’s manager can tell you why their cinnamon rolls are so special.

“I’m glad that people enjoy it and it makes it fun to do something that people enjoy, but I can’t tell you exactly why,” Blocher said. 

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FPL asks to add monthly surcharges to cover Hurricane Irma costs

Despite leaving thousands in Florida without power for weeks following Hurricane Irma, Florida Power & Light will ask residents to pay surcharges each month through 2020 to help cover costs.

The SunSentinel reports FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy, announced the proposed $4 montly surcharge to Wall Street analysts on Thursday.

The surcharge would rise to $5.50 a month from 2019-20. 

The Irma surcharge would start in March 2018, following the expiration of surcharges for Hurricane Matthew which hit Florida in 2016.

FPL claims the added fees are necessary to help recover costs spent in the recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma.

More than 90 percent of FPL customers lost power following Irma, with many waiting weeks for electricity to be restored.

The Florida Public Service Commission will make the final decision within 60 days of the surcharge proposal being filed.

According to the Sun-Sentinel, FPL customers are already paying monthly surcharges for two prior storm periods: $3.36 for Matthew and $1.32 for the hurricanes that hit South Florida in 2004-05.

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