Cuban model train enthusiast Miguel Jorda enters another world when he lowers his American Flyer railroad layout down from the ceiling of his bedroom with a pulley mechanism, transforming his Havana home into the stage for a miniature 1950s U.S. town.
The 56-year-old’s American Flyer steam locomotives, which he inherited from his grandfather, date from before Cuba’s 1959 leftist revolution – which saw U.S.-Cuban relations sour – when they were still sold in Havana.
Back then, before Washington imposed strict sanctions on Cuba, many of the real trains on the Caribbean’s largest island were also from the United States, in contrast with the Chinese trains it received recently as part of an ongoing railroads revamp.
Model vehicles are nearly exclusively a niche adult hobby in Communist-run Cuba, where they have not been stocked in shops for years, and where enthusiasts either have to get resourceful to keep old toys working or handcraft their own new ones.
A stars and stripes U.S. flag is draped on the wall above Jorda’s 3×3-meter (10×10-foot) railroad layout, which is complete with a church, homes, water tower, leafy square and a crane for loading cargo – some original models, others handcrafted by the model trains enthusiast himself.
The audiovisual technician says it was his grandfather, a railroad maintenance worker, who initiated him into the real world of trains before bequeathing him the model train set.
“When I was a small boy, he would put me on Cienaga’s steam locomotives, that don’t exist anymore,” he said.
Across town, graphic designer Aurelio Tabares views the scarcity of model vehicles as a golden business opportunity.
The 27-year-old handcrafts in great detail model vehicles that can measure up to a meter (1 yard) long to sell to collectors or even businesses looking for scale models for their offices or presentations.
The raw materials are – like most things these days in Cuba’s cash-strapped state-run economy battling its own inefficiencies as well as decades-old U.S. sanctions and the pandemic – hard to find, he says.
Tabares turns plastic sheets into metal-seeming vehicle shells with the help of a lick of paint, and repurposes the internal electronics from any devices he can get his hands on, from a radio to a CD player, for the mechanics.
He says that while he is still developing his craft, he’s already managing to generate good revenue. He made around $450 for his last sale, a red truck.
“The scant access here to materials has helped me indirectly learn to use material not designed for this,” he said, “and to try to give them a new utility and do something that really looks as close as possible to reality.”