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Regional 19 Jun, 2024 Follow News

John Felder with the Tesla he exported to Cuba

Cuban Tesla owners William and Jessica Rodriguez with John Felder

Documentary film producers Peter and Pamela McNeil in Cuba with John Felder (Center)

When the white Tesla Model Y rolled onto the dock at Mariel Port in Cuba, it marked a historic moment in international trade, in the auto industry and, to some degree, in U.S.-Cuba diplomacy. The headline-grabbing moment would never have happened without the perseverance and vision of University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) alumnus John Felder.

The license that allowed Felder to export a U.S.-made electric car to private citizens in Cuba is the first such permit since the U.S. embargo was launched more than six decades ago. People who know Felder, the owner of Premier Automotive Export in Maryland, cited his temperament, patience and salesmanship as reasons for his success.

“John’s magnetic personality is infectious. He is one of the most influential people I have ever met,” said film producer Peter McNeil who, with his wife Pamela, operates A Brighter Path Productions in North Carolina. Captivated by the story of the Cuba-bound Tesla, the McNeils made Driving Towards Change, a film documenting Felder’s initiative.

As part of UMGC’s http://www.umgc.edu/ African American History Month activities, the university is streaming Driving Towards Change on Thursday, Feb. 29. Felder and the McNeils will speak after the screening. While the original film had only been publicly shown twice before—at a red carpet documentary premiere in Columbia, Maryland, in August and at an event in Cuba, the UMGC screening includes additional footage of the Tesla completing its journey from Jacksonville, Florida, to Mariel Port just west of Havana.  

Register here to see the 47-minute movie and post-film discussion.

Felder long has believed in the immense potential for electric cars and solar power in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba where the existing power grid is unreliable yet there is abundant sunshine. As Cuba moves away from Venezuelan oil imports, it has turned its eye toward wind and solar power. The Cuban government’s strategic plan includes greater solar energy capacity.

Felder has partnered with Advanced Solar Products in New Jersey to install 50 charging stations in Cuba. In addition to electric cars, he is also authorized to export electric scooters to Cuba, calling his Bala brand scooters “the safest in the world.” But getting permission to export directly from the United States to the island - as Felder has with the Bahamas, Barbados and the Cayman Islands - was no easy sell. The self-described “gearhead” spent more than 15 years negotiating with government officials in both the United States and Cuba, in addition to juggling the logistics for shipping vehicles and getting paid.

“It’s difficult to operate in Cuba, even worse for an American company because of the embargo,” Felder acknowledged. “For my company to become the first to bring electric vehicles to the island, I had to get both the Cuban government and the U.S. government to say ‘yes.’ I had to get two adversaries to agree.”

There were numerous caveats to the sale, including a promise that the cars would only be sold to private citizens and never resold to the Cuban government. The buyers of the first Tesla were William and Jessica Rodriguez, who own a Cuban restaurant in Burtonsville, Maryland, but also have family property on the island.

While the Tesla is the first electric vehicle to reach a private citizen in Cuba, Felder legally navigated the trade embargo to sell a Nissan Leaf to the Embassy of Guyana in Havana in 2017. That deal came under a limited four-year license from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security and involved Premier Automotive Export’s subsidiary in the Cayman Islands. The license only permitted sales to embassies.

Felder said the embassy is still using the car and “they have not had to stand in a gas line in Cuba for seven years.” He is now negotiating a Tesla sale with the Egyptian Embassy in Cuba. A technician with Premier Automotive Export’s operations is available to travel to Cuba, if needed, to handle maintenance and repairs on the electric cars.

Felder said the Cuba adventure is the pinnacle of a lifelong love affair with cars. “I’m a car guy. I’ve always had a passion for cars, from the time I was a little boy,” he said. “When I was younger, I wanted to drive a stock car.”

That fascination with cars carried him into a 25-year career with Chrysler Corp. Felder was a mid-Atlantic region sales and marketing executive before retiring from the automaker in 2002 and launching his luxury car dealership. Though based in Columbia, Maryland, he immediately saw the potential for sales beyond the United States.

“I did an assessment of markets and started delivering to the Bahamas, Barbados and Grand Cayman,” he explained. “Then I started looking at Cuba and the embargo and all the old cars they still had on the island, cars with no catalytic converters, cars that pollute.

“Cuba has 11.5 million people and about 5 percent of that population can afford to write a check for an electric car. They are part of the middle class. They are the target I want to connect to,” he added.

In 2012, after the Obama administration signaled a softening in the Cold War-era relationship with Cuba, Felder received an invitation to meet in D.C. with officials of the US. Department of Energy and Cuba’s Ministry of Energy.

“That absolutely threw me. I had no idea what the invitation was about. But as soon as I got there, it became apparent they wanted to talk about electric cars,” Felder said, explaining that his car sales elsewhere in the Caribbean had put him on the radar of both countries. “It was an enlightening conversation, and I was invited to Cuba.” 

Once in Havana, Felder was mesmerized by the old American cars that Cuban drivers kept running through sheer resourcefulness. “I knew about them, of course, but for a car guy like me to actually see a Studebaker or an old Edsel still on the road was unbelievable,” he said.    

Felder said he is thrilled the film of the electric cars initiative will be shown by UMGC, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business at the urging of his oldest daughter, who was a college student at the time. As a military veteran, he had long known about UMGC.

Felder had started his college career in pre-med at North Carolina Central University but decided that medicine wasn’t a good fit and left school. His daughter challenged him to become a Y2K graduate in tandem with her.

“I was still working for Chrysler and there was the demand of going back to college when I was 50-something. I was the oldest person in my class,” Felder said. He attended in-person classes in the evenings on Mondays and Wednesdays and all day on Saturdays, and he completed the degree requirements in two years.

He said the makeup of the class was diverse, and the dynamic in-classroom discussions “were a big part of my life experience.”

And Felder’s connection with the McNeils? Pure serendipity.

The McNeils learned of Felder’s Cuba plans when they were working out details for filming the national convention of the African American Postal League - A-Plus, for short - a national organization focused on Black postal employees. Along with the filming, the McNeils were going to serve as vendors at the convention to sell their novel Duology of Postal and to promote their feature film, Urge, which turned a thoughtful lens on a couple dealing with the fallout from pornography addiction.

During talks with Camille Wilder, the A-Plus vice president of retirees mentioned Felder - a friend of hers - and his Cuba project. It wasn’t long before the McNeils were asked to film Felder’s efforts.

“This golden opportunity was staring us in the face and, after Pam and I had a conversation, we accepted. We had to quickly put the promotion of Urge on the backburner because we were headed to Cuba!” Peter McNeil said.

Although they eventually jumped on board, the filmmakers’ initial reaction had been hesitation.

“Who goes to Cuba? Not too many people we know. That’s why we weren’t lured onto this project right away,” Pamela McNeil said. “But then we met John, who is loveable and generous and made us feel like family. That sealed the deal.”

The McNeils intended to make short videos that could be used as promotional spots or trailers focused on Felder’s undertaking. It didn’t take long, however, to see the potential for a documentary film. In addition to interviewing U.S. government officials and Felder’s friends and colleagues in the United States, the McNeils traveled twice to Cuba, where they, too, were amazed by the old autos on the road.

“Those classic retro cars are beautiful. But they have no air conditioning. They’re rickety and raggedy inside,” Pamela McNeil said. “There were times we were in a car that had to pull off and sit at the side of the road because they overheated.”

They also got to experience one of Cuba’s iconic gas station lines when they waited an hour and 15 minutes to reach a pump so their driver could fill up the car’s tank. But they also praised the creativity and energy and friendliness of the Cubans they met.

Pamela McNeil said the moment the island was waiting for, the arrival of the Tesla, felt surreal.

“You have a generation of young people that all they’ve known are retro cars,” she said. “That Tesla—it’s something Cubans never would have imagined they’d see in their lifetimes.”


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