By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES – As I live in a municipality in Holguin, which is in fact one of the most remote provinces in Cuba’s interior, current fuel shortages have barely had an impact on public transport such as buses, because everything fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed (1991), and nothing has ever improved since.
Better yet, things have got worse as industry was destroyed (a sugar mill and nickel factory), which used to provide transport for workers and other people.
Horse-drawn wagons and bicitaxis are the main means of transport in this municipality of 105,000 inhabitants, which is abundant in natural treasures yet people live in the most absurd poverty and it has been suffering a negative net migration rate for over two decades, when there were 112,000 inhabitants.
However, the real icing on the cake has been incompetent political and Transport authorities in the region, who gave rise to a crisis with private taxi-drivers approximately three years ago, which has made it hard for this private and rustic service to run smoothly like it used to.
They reduced fares from two pesos to just one, along a main route which is 3.5 km long and full of awful potholes; which has made private horse-drawn wagon drivers and locals both lose out, but they won’t fix the situation because they couldn’t care less about doing the right thing and resolving people’s problems.
The local population has been suffering ever since because the drivers avoid this route, as it is not only unprofitable for them to carry 8 passengers this distance for a measly 8 pesos. They can’t increase the number of trips they make to make up the difference either because of the dreadful condition roads are in, which the horses can’t bear because it’s one hole after another.
Horse-drawn cart drivers have even tried to strike, but they are then threatened with having their licenses revoked if they don’t start working again. On the other hand, new and more absurd regulations are invented from time to time, which result in over 1000-peso fines.
Just imagine having to transport over 1000 passengers to pay off one fine, for things like carrying one passenger too many, not carrying a bottle of water to wash your hands, updating the parking permit on time, and so on.
However, while the owner can’t increase the fare for a service which involves a great investment in expensive horses, expensive food such as bags of chopped grass, cane honey at 120 pesos for a 20 liter bottle, horseshoes, harnesses or fixing the cart often because it comes apart with the potholes; a person who looks after bikes at the only polyclinic in Mayari has increased his fee for parking, from one to two pesos.
But the two pesos for parking, just like riding in a taxi, would be less because the Cuban peso loses real value every year. However, I’ll let you know that I have to pay five pesos for my bike, even though it’s the same size as any other and takes up the same amount of space.
The price difference shouldn’t be up to the bike valet, and the reason I pay extra is because it runs on electricity. It’s completely unjustified because the service he is providing is the same for a bike with just pedals as it is for another bike which the owner has added an electric motor. I believe this is just a way to steal money, and the worse thing is that he can do this with complete immunity because he has a state license.
There isn’t a single employee, or experienced doctor at the polyclinic or even the director himself, who earns half what the bike valet does when he used to charge just one peso, because it is a super busy place, with people constantly coming and going, and so hundreds of bikes and dozens of motorized bicycles park here every day. It’s a very profitable business and it doesn’t imply any investment, unlike the private cart-drivers.
The crisis has also meant a shortage of reagents for clinical analysis labs or materials for the dentist clinic. For example, my wife has needed an oral treatment urgently, but it’s been more than a month and it still hasn’t been fixed, and she has already gone four times to appointments in vain, because gauze and other materials are missing.
The bike valet has charged her a total of 20 pesos just for parking a couple of minutes to ask some questions. When she finally receives this treatment, the service won’t be free because she would have filled the pockets of this unprincipled bike valet.
I defend private business owners’ rights, I am against them being hit with exorbitant fines and I advocate for them to have the freedom to work and a reasonable profit margin, such as the horse-drawn wagon drivers.
However, there are others like this bike valet who takes advantage of people and goes too far, and another valet with a desire to create a win-win relationship with his customers, deserves this opportunity instead. Because he isn’t even using his own space, but the covered garage that belongs to the Health Facility itself.
These are the damaging ironies that have negative repercussions for locals amidst a hostile “temporary” situation which is the fruit of the system’s crisis itself. And it isn’t a problem coming from abroad.