Film Highlights First EV Export from America to Cuba

U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations took a step forward recently when Texas-based carmaker Tesla exported the first American electric vehicle to Cuba. The arrival of the white Model Y at the Mariel Port dock in Cuba represents a historic moment in the auto industry as well as U.S.-Cuba relations and international trade.

With Cuba finally turning away from Venezuelan oil imports, the Cuban government is keen on increasing the country’s solar capacity. This month, the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) will stream a film titled “Driving Towards Change” as part of its African-American History Month activities. The film will feature sequences of the Tesla Model Y traveling from Jacksonville, Florida, to Mariel Port in Cuba. These sequences were not included when the original film premiered Maryland and at a Cuban event.

John Felder, a (UMGC) alumnus who partnered with New Jersey’s Advanced Solar Products to install dozens of public EV-charging stations in Cuba, was mostly responsible for the historic feat. Felder is a long-time proponent of vehicular electrification and believes both EVs and solar energy have significant potential for growth in the Caribbean. A self-described “gearhead,” Felder already had authorization to import electric scooters into Cuba but says that it wasn’t easy obtaining authorization to export directly from the United States to Cuba. He reportedly spent a whopping 15 years negotiating with U.S. and Cuban government officials while working out the logistics of exporting vehicles to Cuba and remaining profitable.

Felder acknowledges that operating in Cuba is difficult, especially for American companies whose activities are curtailed by the embargo. Obtaining permission to export an EV from the U.S. to the island of Cuba required that he forge an agreement between two adversaries, he says. Ultimately, Felder had to meet certain conditions before he could export a Tesla to Cuba. For starters, only private citizens would be potential customers and the EVs would never be resold to Cuba’s government. For this first export, the buyers were a couple who owned a Cuban restaurant in Maryland and also had family property in Cuba.

Felder was also instrumental in getting the first Nissan Leaf past the embargo and into Havana’s Embassy of Guyana in 2017. The deal was thanks to a limited four-year license from the Bureau of Industry and Security at the U.S. Department of Commerce with aid from Premier Automotive Export’s Cayman Islands subsidiary.

The limited license only allowed Felder to sell to embassies in Cuba. He is now negotiating the sale of a Tesla to the Egypt Embassy in Cuba. If the deal is successful, a Premier Automotive Export technician can travel to Cuba to handle maintenance and repairs.

The ingenuity and tenacity that Felder exhibited in pulling off the EV export to Cuba is a skill that would come in handy for EV makers across the board, including entities such as Fisker Inc. (NYSE: FSR), especially given the growing competition that could push some manufacturers out of the market in the decades to come.

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