Cayman Island business man export electric cars to Cuba

HAVANA, Jan. 18th This month, Cayman Islands auto dealer John Felder and his Premier Automotive Export Ltd., a subsidiary of Cayman Automotive, will become the first U.S. car company to ship American-built vehicles to Cuba.

The breakthrough comes after the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a four-year license to Mr. Felder on Jan. 9 authorizing the initial shipment of a U.S.-made Nissan Leaf electric car to the Havana-based Embassy of Guyana.

Gaining entry to Cuba, the auto dealer said, “took four years, but I’m on top of the world.”

The export authorization, for Jan. 9, 2017 to Jan. 31, 2021, was granted to Mr. Felder by the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security. It specifies that the cars may not be re-exported nor ownership transferred within the country unless authorized by the U.S. government.

“I can ship as many vehicles as I want to Cuba,” Mr. Felder said, explaining that Washington still forbids trade with Havana officials “because they don’t want to support a Communist government.” He predicted this would slowly evolve as ties broadened between the two countries.

Mr. Felder said he cannot export vehicles directly from Cayman Automotive, but must use his U.S.-based subsidiary, Premier Automotive Export.

“The tax man wants his share of the revenues,” Mr. Felder said. “He has to get paid for each and every export,” roughly 6 percent of sales.

Premier Automotive Export has been sending vehicles to the Bahamas for four years. The company opened a Miami office two weeks ago in preparation for the Cuba trade, and is on the verge of launching operations in Havana.

Mr. Felder said he has employed a retired General Motors technician, to be based in Cayman, who will travel to Havana to train five Cubans to handle maintenance and repairs.

Mr. Felder did not have a specific shipping date for the vehicles, but said it is likely to be before the end of the month.

The authorization for Mr. Felder came in the wake of President Barack Obama’s re-establishment of contacts in December 2014 between Washington and Havana after 56 years of hostility.

All vehicle shipments will be to nongovernment entities in the island nation: 124 embassies, any private enterprises and non-state businesses, including U.S. companies, Mr. Felder said.

“Marriott and Starwood hotels are there now, for example. I can’t say how many [private businesses] there are at the moment, but even their employees can buy.”

He anticipates sending two Nissans initially, and a charging station.

The license stipulates shipment of “one 2015 Nissan Leaf, 100 percent electric four-door sedan with a range of 87 miles on a single charge. The engine is 24 kilowatts and delivers 97 horsepower,” and costs US$24,850.

The document describes the station: “Clipper Creek level II charger is a 40 amp charger fitted with the J-1772 universal charging connector,” the same equipment used in Cayman’s charging stations. The license pegs the cost at US$875.

Mr. Felder has been operating George Town-based Cayman Automotive since 2005, mostly trading in U.S., Japanese and Chinese trucks and cars. In 2009 he became Cayman’s sole electric-vehicle dealer, selling the first “EV” to Camana Bay and installing almost a dozen-and-a-half charging stations across Grand Cayman, supplying the 52 electric cars on the roads.

The islands boast another 15 gas-electric hybrids.

Guyanese Ambassador to Cuba Halim Majeed thanked Mr. Felder for the initiative: “On behalf of the Government of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, and, indeed on my own behalf, I would wish to express our gratitude to you for your perseverance in exporting to my embassy a 100 percent electric vehicle,” the ambassador wrote on Jan. 10.

Mr. Felder said he partnered with Advanced Solar Products, based in Flemington, New Jersey, to install 50 charging locations, each costing approximately US$1,000, in gas stations across Havana.

According to its website, the company has installed “over 40 megawatts of ground and roof-mounted PV [photovoltaic] systems, ranging in size from under 10 kilowatts to over 14 megawatts.”

Industry newsletter “Solar Power World” named Advance Solar Products among the top five U.S. commercial solar contractors in 2012.

“They are going into Havana next month to get operating, and will be shipping chargers next month,” Mr. Felder said, indicating the company may employ Cuban-built solar panels.

Solar and wind experiments have gained momentum in Cuba as the country has sought to reduce Venezuelan oil imports, which previously topped 40,000 barrels per day. However, Caracas has slashed shipments by 30 percent in the wake of the socialist government’s crippling economic crisis.

In a December 2014 issue of Cuba’s Granma International newspaper, Efren Marcos Espinosa, investment specialist at the Pinar del Rio electric company, said Cuba’s 4,000 solar panels each produced a peak output of 250 watts, saving approximately 8.4 million barrels of crude per year.