HAVANA TIMES – When my mother called to tell me my 79-year-old father had a kidney infection, pneumonia and high blood sugar levels as a result of his diabetes, I headed straight for Matanzas. My father arrived at Matanzas’ Military Hospital with all of these symptoms and they didn’t admit him, saying they didn’t have any beds. They didn’t even keep him in the observation ward.
They prescribed him insulin, but it wasn’t the best thing to bring his sugar levels down. If it hadn’t been for a great childhood friend of mine who is also a nurse, my father wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale today, and I wouldn’t be writing this story as I would be busy organizing funeral arrangements.
As I was leaving in a rush, I had to look for a private collective taxi. To my surprise, the 5 USD rate which is expensive as it is for ordinary Cubans, had gone up to 7 USD in the past month or so, according to the driver. Supply and demand, replied the taxi driver to my questions. I was still thinking about the discomfort caused by my father’s lack of medical attention, so I was feeling like I was being abused by the system twice over.
While I had a go at the driver for the price increase, without offering anything in exchange, a woman behind me touched me on the shoulder and said: “I don’t live here, I’m just visiting, but carry on because you’re doing the right thing, otherwise nothing will ever change in this country.” The driver began to tell me all about the difficulties he faces as a result of the few benefits he receives from the Cuban government.
He mentioned fuel prices, among other things. He was basically saying that between spare parts, fuel and maintenance, almost all of his earnings fly away. On the other hand, he doesn’t own the car he drives. In spite of this, I told him how abusive the fare was and told him that Cubans shouldn’t carry on “disagreeing” in this way, squeezing what we can out of one another, as we say here. I was convinced he was partly to blame in this story.
At 11:55 AM in Wednesday July 10th, we passed Control Point 0. It’s right after the town of Guanabo. A policeman stopped the car for no specific reason. A few minutes passed by before the driver came back and to prove his innocence in regard to his fares, he admitted that he had paid the official 5 CUC to allow him to continue on his journey, and the journey of everyone else who was traveling with him.
The policeman used a trivial argument “of ripped tires” to extort money from the driver. For months now, independent media outlets (including Havana Times) have been reporting the number of accidents which expose a systemic cause. Maybe the most high-profile news was the accident in which a Chevrolet lost control along Havana’s Malecon, resulting in several fatalities and people injured by its impact.
It is striking that the traffic policeman sanctioned the driver with an argument relating to the car’s condition. It seems that the government has made it a priority for public transport vehicles to be in a good condition to circulate its roads, yet, the policeman just used this as an excuse to take advantage and blackmail the driver. I wonder how many times he does this in a day.
That’s when I thought about needing to write this down. I had criticized the driver really harshly, and he also later told me that it costs 100 USD in blackmail money to get a car to pass its routine maintenance inspection. “You don’t have any other choice because they just tell you that there are problems over and over again, so that you have to pay them off record.” This means that even drivers have no real idea about what technical condition their cars are in.
In the face of this situation, my own judgement on values was shaky. The driver-agressor was now the driver-victim. By that point, I had already forgotten about my sick father. I felt what it was like to be an individual degraded by a system’s corruption. How could he be saved? How could I be saved? Well, I just had to swallow what was happening, be objective and focus on where I was heading.