A Havana Squabble over Tradition and Modernity

Erasmo Calzadilla

Street into the Electrico neighborhood.

HAVANA TIMES — On the night of Friday, October 17 this year, several city buses parked at a terminal located in El Calvario, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Havana, were intentionally damaged. After several decades of hibernation, the word “sabotage” is again being pronounced by people.

Two weeks after the incident, the police have yet to find the culprits and the damaged vehicles have not returned to circulation.

This happened very close to El Electrico, the neighborhood of my birth. Here is the background to these events, in case anyone is interested.

El Electrico is a suburban neighborhood typical of those built by the revolutionary government in the 1970s.

In the eighties, one sensed a fair degree of prosperity there: well-stocked markets, movie screenings on weekends and buses servicing its streets with regularity.

Then came the Special Period, emptying out the markets, destroying the movie theater and filling the straight streets with pot holes. Then, only the occasional public vehicle crossed its derelict avenues a few times during the day.

To get out of the neighborhood and head for the downtown area, one had to walk more than a kilometer to the terminal at El Calvario, where the buses departed. Not everyone can walk that distance. It was particularly painful for the old and ill, and for women at night (the stretch had dark areas where public masturbators and delinquents lay in wait). Because of this, and because it spared them an uncomfortable walk, people were overjoyed when horse-drawn carts entered the scene.

The coachmen were generally uninhibited, rough types. Their wild ways would influence young people devoid of perspective. They would “pick up” the most beautiful girls in the neighborhood and teenagers tried to imitate them. To explain their popularity, I should mention they made very good money.

Horse cart publica transportation. Photo: Ernesto Pérez Chang

One Cuban peso isn’t a lot of money, unless you’re a humble student or a simple worker and you have catch those horse carts every day – there and back. The appearance of La Guaguita meant a break for many.

La Guaguita was a kind of jalopy hauled by a noisy tractor. It was faster than the coaches and, most importantly, cheaper. For a while, we were “happy.”

Then, The Party Got Wild

Seeing their incomes threatened, the rough coachmen declared war on the bus. They would burst its tires, steal or break pieces from it, bribe the drivers and mechanics to keep it out of circulation (or threaten them if they refused to grant them their wishes). In the end, they got their way.

Community authorities counterattacked setting the price of the coach ride at 40 cents. The coachmen responded to the measure by not giving two shits about it. They were at the peak of their popularity.

The General Stops the Party

A few years later, the new laws passed by Raul Castro’s government legally recognized the trade of coachman and began applying taxes on them. I don’t know whether it’s because they have no shame or they found themselves between a rock and a hard place, but the fact is that the coach rides went up to two pesos. People grumbled, protested, cursed, griped…and finally paid up.

A P6 omnibus. Photo: bibliotecahellen.blogspot.com

The second-to-last episode in this story began when, at the request of the residents of El Electrico, the route of one of the buses that departed from the Calvario terminal was made to include the neighborhood. I hadn’t seen people so happy since the last time Havana’s baseball team, Industriales, had won the championship.

People were so happy that no one took any notice of the impact that the modern, heavy buses were having on what is left of our streets.

In a prosperous and developed environment, roads are repaired regularly. In the era of the energy crisis (we already have experience in this connection), the pavement sinks and the crater left behind remains there forever. In a year or two, we won’t have a single good street – they will be useless for both buses and horse-drawn carts.

If people had even the slightest idea of how short-lived their happinness will be, they would avoid this false solution and would try to negotiate with the coachmen.

But no: people have no idea what’s coming, no sense of unity or self-worth, no confidence in their own strength and other factors that are essential to turning down the cheap gifts the State offers them and pushing the opportunistic bastards that try and often manage to take their money against the wall.

You already know how this story ends: someone damaged the articulated buses that were circulating through El Electrico. The police have not found the culprits but everyone suspects those “horse-smelling terrorists.”