The Q in Cuba

A Japanese car discovers its Havanese roots.
September 30, 2016, 5:45 PM UTC
Photograph by Lisette Poole for Fortune

The Q in Cuba

A Japanese car discovers its Havanese roots.

It started innocently enough, as some of the most poignant stories often do. Nearly two years ago, I saw a concept car—an entirely elegant and unique sedan—and I sought out its designer to learn about it. It was the kind of car with detailing so decadent in proportions and lusty in materials (three types of high-grade leather and bullhide floor mats to run your toes through), you’d expect to see it on the lawn at an important collector car show as a high-water mark of custom coach-building from a time-honored past. Except that this vehicle was so contemporary it hadn’t been slated for production yet.

The car was the Infiniti Q80 Inspiration and its creator Alfonso Albaisa, a corporate vice president and the executive design director of Infiniti. As I peppered Albaisa with questions about his extraordinary one-off and his background, he shared with me that he’s Cuban.

Knowing already back in late 2014 that travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba were about to start lifting, I immediately suggested that he help me convince his employer to bring his latest production car to Cuba. It would be the first new car officially exported from America into the Communist island nation in nearly 58 years—and the only one penned by a Cuban. Standing there, I could envision the sleek modernity of its pearl-white haunches against the backdrop of Cuba’s multi-colored vintage cars. One other thing, I added: May I tag along to tell the story?

Infiniti finally granted my wish this past March, days after Obama’s visit and 16 months after my initial query—with the additional good news that they’d send a pre-production version of the all-new Q60 coupe, giving it to me months before any other media set foot in it. And so, what had initially seemed like a fun, timely lark turned into a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for Albaisa, his company, and me.

There is usually pain before pleasure, and in the case of trying to do business with a third-world Communist country (let alone doing something like importing a car from America that hadn’t been done in decades), the frustration was at times a 10 out of 10. From the moment that Infiniti gave “Project Havana” the go-ahead, it became a nearly full-time job involving many dozens of people, many tens of thousands of dollars (shipping fees, visas, location permits, insurance, and local “fixers”), and many, many miles of Communist-red tape.

All those helpers generated literally thousands of emails. In the 24 hours alone before the car made it onto the boat at Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades, no less than one thousand emails crisscrossed between 25 different people. Two international legal teams spent months dissecting minor and major concerns.

And that was all before the lone lnfiniti Q60 finally arrived in Cuba in early August, sealed in a shipping container and held at the Port Mariel, located several hours outside of Havana. When Albaisa, my crew and I arrived in Cuba a week after the car did, we expected to go immediately from the airport to the port and roar off into the sunset. But before we even had our suitcases, our local consultants hit us with sobering news: We were now not allowed at the port, which is, of course, a military controlled zone. In a few seconds, our months of planning nearly blew up.

Alfonso in the Q60 just after its removed from its shipping container.Photograph by Lisette Pool for Fortune Magazine

For the next 11 hours, we drove around 100-degree Havana, inexplicably picking up a shipping agent on a street corner miles from her office; battling endless paperwork, broken copiers, and last-minute demands from unnamed officials for an additional $14,000 in cash if we wanted to ever see the car.

I made a panicked phone call to a contact in a high place, who minutes later made the extortion go away. But still no car.

It wasn’t until our third day (of only four that we had), that a project on the verge of epic failure every step of the way finally became a success. On the morning of August 10th, Infiniti reps, Albaisa, my production crew of eight and I took possession of the shiny, candy-apple red Q60. The svelte two-door coupe emerged from its hot, grimy shipping container pristine. It was the most anticipated car of my entire career; thank god it was beautiful.

As soon as the project got the green light from Infiniti, I asked Albaisa to give me some background on his family’s history in Cuba. In his unfiltered email response, I learned a lot: First and foremost that he had never been to Cuba. According to him, his family’s history and political status in Cuba go back at least 200 years, and he is descended from a line that is directly traceable to Spanish aristocracy. Some of his examples: In 1877, his great aunt Carmen Zayas Bazan was married to Jose Marti, considered a national hero. His maternal great-grandfather, Rogerio Zayas Bazan, was the minister of the interior for President Machado in the late 1920s and ran for president in 1931, but his opponent challenged him to a duel after a disagreement, only to have Zayas Bazan assassinated before he reached the agreed-upon site. It was a tragic and brutal gesture that was allegedly almost immediately returned in kind. As the family lore goes, days later his grandfather—then only 17 or so—was snuck into Cuba by night from the Georgia Military Academy where (like many high-level Cubans at the time) he had been training, and returned the favor.

The same grandfather went on to hold various high offices in government, culminating in his being Governor of the province of Camaguey at the time of the Castro revolution. By 1962, his estate in Camaguey had been seized by the G2, Cuba’s secret police, and turned into their headquarters (it still is to this day). The basement was turned into a prison, and his grandfather was unceremoniously held there for years.

Seeing what was happening to her father, Albaisa’s mother, Aida Zayas Bazan—whose two brothers, she later learned, had left Cuba in 1960 to train with the CIA for the Bay of Pigs—and father, Adolfo Albaisa, fled Cuba in August 1962 (poignantly, the very same month Alfonso made his pilgrimage to the island). They took a night flight to Florida, and among the “costs” exacted by the new regime in order to leave was to hand over all items of value—for Adolfo, an architect, that meant his Edsel sedan and Rolex, which had been a graduation present from his father. Alfonso was born two years later in exile on the outskirts of Miami.

Albaisa’s Infiniti Q60 was the first American car allowed into Cuba in decades; it’s seen here in front of the Tropicana, the iconic nightclub designed by his great-uncle.Photograph by Lisette Poole for Fortune
Photograph by Lisette Poole for Fortune

Albaisa’s deep and high-level ties to Cuba aren’t only political, but—closer to home for a car designer—also aesthetic. His mother’s uncle Max Borges-Recio was a famous mid-century modern architect best known for Havana’s iconic Tropicana Club, a former global hotspot that prompted this description from Vanity Fair in 2011: “In the decadent jet-set heaven of 1950s Havana, the only place to be was Tropicana, a pleasure dome where the shows (and showgirls) were dazzling, the gambling was high-stakes, and the revelers included Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and J.F.K., to name a few.”

And “dome” it was, literally. The structure’s dramatic arches and uses of windows to highlight its curving forms were a huge inspiration to Albaisa growing up. “Buildings like the Tropicana were a modernist expression—they have mass but they also have a sense of weightlessness,” he says. “These structures are a cultural mirror that shows the dreams of a society to make what is beyond our own expectations,” he said. “So for me, the passion, the power and the sculpture in the Q60 is very dear to me—and quite similar.”

Albaisa’s car made it into Cuba on August 1st, and we landed there exactly one week later. His arrival was an uncomfortably personal moment for me to witness: deplaning in the sweltering heat of a Havana morning and making his way silently into the small, dark airport, looking more than a little pensive.

When customs were cleared (do not smile into the camera, I was told) and the luggage was secured (22 checked items, thanks to our video crew’s equipment load), we headed to the curb, with Cuba’s fleet of vibrant, tattered Frankenstein vintage vehicles as the noisy, aromatic backdrop.

Albaisa wanted to immediately 1) meet his cousin, Mayte Rondon Betancourt, for the first time in person. And 2) go with her to their grandfather’s former Havana estate.

Albaisa and his cousin (left) explore the grounds of their grandfather’s Havana estate.Photograph by Lisette Poole for Fortune

Cuba’s capital city has many sides—crumbling colonial, sophisticated modernist, tidy touristy, impoverished Third World (the average monthly income for a Cuban is roughly $25). The neighborhood where Albaisa’s grandfather lived, however, was state of the art, with manicured lawns, freshly painted facades—and maximum security, thanks to high-ranking officials sharing the street; the vice president, we were told later, lives two door down, and a general next door.

His grandfather’s house (now government-owned and rented out to a large French technology company for use by its executives) was a sprawling, white ranch-style home. “That first day, we got onto the grounds, which was a little bit heart-shaking for me because I know that my grandmother, grandfather, mother, and uncles ran on this grass,” Albaisa shared. “This was the first time I was on [Cuban] land that my family was on when they were young. My uncle [Enrique Sosa] went to Cuba with Obama, but he wasn’t able to walk the grounds, and there I was, now in.”

Next on the agenda, the mid-century modern campus of the former Villanova university, where Albaisa’s father graduated with a degree in architecture in 1958. Once again, I saw the poignant, conflicted look in his eyes: Here was a place he had heard so much about from his father growing up, and now only the shadows of that time remain in the form of government-owned, run-down buildings—time-worn yet still striking in their modernist designs.

Alfonso Albaisa at the school where his father studied before the Revolution in Havana, the former Villanova.Photograph by Lisette Pool for Fortune Magazine

As the day moved toward noon and the heat toward excruciating, Albaisa, commandeering the wheel of the Q60, and I headed into Old Havana. We alighted at the Parque Plaza de Christo, where 60 to 70 years ago all of Detroit used to debut their new cars to a culture perhaps even more car-crazy than America’s.

Time had apparently changed nothing: despite the scorching heat, crowds swarmed both the shiny Q60, parked curbside, and Albaisa, surprised to learn his Spanish was fluent and his hand gestures clearly Cuban. “What model year is it?” one elderly gentleman inquired. “It’s a 2017,” replied Andrew, one of our cameramen. “But how is that possible?” the old man exclaimed. “It’s only 2016!”

Residents of Old Havana admire the Infiniti Q60. Residents of Old Havana admire the Infiniti Q60.Photograph by Lisette Poole for Fortune

That afternoon, we visited a place that was Ground Zero of importance to Albaisa—his great uncle Max’s Tropicana Club. We drove the Q60 to the boite’s jungly entrance—only to discover that the gracefully arching dinner club clamshell, adjacent to the current plein air Tropicana nightclub, now exists only under lock-and-key.

Patience paid off: After more than an hour, the director produced the key to the musty yet dramatic space clearly unrenovated and untouched by time. I watched Albaisa take in the vaulting volumes and sweeping curves that clearly influenced his shapely wheel wells and taut, sculptural body panels. “I was impressed [seeing the Tropicana],” Albaisa recalls. “When you find that someone in your family has done something that you dream of doing, you have a genetic pull—and then it’s up to you to practice like crazy.”

The final pull—this time both creative and forward-looking—came on our last evening in Havana, when a young musician and gallery owner—Adán Perugorria, the son of Cuban movie star Jorge Perugorria—hosted an event at his private art gallery, Galeria Taller Gorria, for the city’s up-and-coming creatives. Albaisa talked with the crowd of more than 150 about his design background and influences, while the Q60 perched proudly nearby in the center of the space.

Alfonso gives a talk on his design career at Espace Gorria.Photograph by Lisette Pool for Fortune Magazine

“That last evening in Cuba was especially important to me,” said Albaisa. “A few industrial design students came up to me and said that their dream was to design cars, and from the passion in their eyes, I could see that DNA-wise, we are the same. If my family could escape the island and I could end up designing luxury cars in Japan, then they can do great things, too.” And hopefully without the constraints of politics that their parents and grandparents endured.

We reluctantly departed the next day, Albaisa still wistful. A few weeks later, I asked him to reflect on his. “The low moment was obviously what’s happened to the island,” he shared. “I personally felt shame that humans do this—neglect the potential that we have for probably the wrong reasons.”

“On the other hand,” he continued on Skype from his office in Tokyo, “the highs were the people of Cuba. Amazing. Warm. Kind. Open. If you really think about it, there’s no reason for them to be nice to me. We come in with a car that they cannot have. And I’m an exile, from an exiled family that was politically unappetizing.

“I would like everyone to help make things better for Cuba by being a good example when we go. And help people dream in Cuba just like I was able to dream in the United States.”