Transformer, Cuban style

July 19, 2012

By Desmond Boylan

“I am 70-years-old and I still feel strong, but legally I can’t work as a taxi driver because of my age,” Gilberto Ruiz told me the first time I met him. I had asked him about his pickup truck, a Ford, obviously pre-Revolution, with a shape I’d never seen.

He continued, “One day I suddenly had an idea. I’ll cut up my 1948 Ford Deluxe Sedan and weld it into a van and work the private transport business.”

My first thought was, “Wow, this man has imagination.” I immediately liked him and tried to get to know him better. I started to document his activity through pictures.

Economic activity and private enterprise are rising in Cuba under a full new set of guidelines resulting from last year’s Communist Party Congress. With economic reforms still unfolding, Gilberto’s business of delivering bulky construction materials is booming. His new mobile phone, only recently legalized, never stops ringing. New restaurants and houses are being built and others refurbished, and that creates new customers for him.

Gilberto didn’t think twice. He cut open the back of his 64-year-old sedan, welded it into a pickup truck and now is happy working. He has plenty of customers and his list is getting longer. Gilberto’s permit to work with his car as a private-licensed taxi had expired, so he went and literally welded himself a new job.

The machine or “maquina,” as these vehicles are called in Cuba, is fitted with a 15-year-old French Renault diesel engine, which Gilberto describes as “modern.” He also fitted it with an adapted Soviet-era Lada gearbox.

Gilberto’s U.S.-made 1948 Ford sedan morphed into a pickup truck works wonders, climbs steep hills, sails along muddy and potholed roads and carries a huge load of sacks of cement, bricks, tiles, water tanks, styrofoam, and anything else used in construction, all for a reasonable fee.

He also has a mobile phone and takes orders from his most regular customers. I heard him say to one caller, “No problem. You need 20 sacks of cement, I’ll buy them and deliver to you. I already know where you are building. See you later.”

In Cuba it is normal to be stopped by police when carrying construction materials. Receipts must be shown, and if the goods have no receipt or are stolen or come from the black market, a problem arises. Materials are impounded. People must justify to authorities where they got the materials.

Gilberto bases his business in practicality, trust, efficiency, reliability, thinking out of the box and, above all, strict legality. He is the kind of guy that wants absolutely no problems with the law. He will never carry any black market goods or anything suspicious that could cause him any trouble.

In order to do his business in a perfectly legal way, Gilberto carries a huge wad of money in his pocket, of Cuban Pesos, Cuban Convertible Pesos, U.S. Dollars and even Euros.  He is comfortable thinking in all these currencies. He also has a young helper who is strong and can load and unload the heavy goods. He then parks his vehicle near spots where bulky construction materials are sold and there makes contact with the customers, after a brief conversation of what is needed and where it must be brought, he buys the materials with his own money,  and makes sure to keep the receipts.

If stopped by the police, he says, “These materials are mine. I bought them with my own money and here is the receipt.” He never lies. The materials are his property during the trip, but when he reaches the destination, the customer takes the receipt, pays the money and the materials become his. Simple. Any messing around by the customer and Gilberto keeps the materials and easily sells them off later.

Gilberto’s fee for the transportation is also settled upon delivery of the materials. Gilberto is an example of new Cuban-style private business enterprise, adapting to the new economic reforms in Cuba and the demand for transportion it is generating. Cubans easily adapt to whatever comes with inventive and imagination, using the limited resources they have to get by in an effective way.

Gilberto gets by now in Cuba in 2012 with a U.S.-made, 64-year-old vehicle that was manufactured with steel melted from World War II-era scrapped military hardware.  It is solid like a tank.



One comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Photos from a recent trip to Cuba:
“See See Havana”

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive