My Morning Odyssey in Havana…

By Paula Henriquez

The morning rush. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — I know the issue of transport here in Cuba has been the subject of discussion many times before, but I feel like there’s always a lot more that can be said. Or maybe it’s because one is left wanting to vent. I’m not sure. Normally, I take the bus my workplace provides. It’s quite reliable, but, it breaks down sometimes, which actually happens quite often, and that’s when my headache starts. More than just a headache, it’s when I just want to disappear.

Let me tell you that I live in Marianao and work in Vedado. I never travel alone between these two neighborhoods, but with my 3-year-old daughter. Almost everybody I know calls me crazy for taking my daughter to day-care so far from home. However, a friend of mine “sorted it out” in Vedado and I was also in favor of this for many other reasons, but maybe I should leave that to be the subject of another article.

The fact of the matter is, when I can’t travel on my workplace’s bus, I have to wait around for public transport and I don’t need to go into details, enough of you know what it’s like to try and get somewhere at 7am in the morning. Seconds, minutes and even hours pass by without having any luck. Yes, you have to be lucky to be able to catch a bus, as we commonly say. Sometimes this happens because they don’t appear, other times because they come but don’t stop and the majority of the time, because I can’t get onto a bus with my little girl when people are hanging off… literally.

A good friend of mine asked me why I don’t just take a collective taxi every time I tell her about my morning adventures. I laugh and then I remember that this person hasn’t lived on the island for quite some time now and I can understand why she asked that question. And so I find myself forced to give an explication which doesn’t make sense for those of us who still live here.

In the end, I thank her because the daily grind in Cuba makes us forget that other worlds exist beyond our own, where subjects like these would belong in funny stories, even in dark humor, as it were. And that’s when I’m forced to tell her that my salary, the salary I receive as a working professional, doesn’t give me the luxury of being able to pay a taxi everyday. And so I spend my time waiting, trying not to give up hope but sometimes that’s simply not possible.

I always manage to get there in the end. However, by that time, a good chunk of my day has already gone and my exhaustion is enough for me to forget about my odyssey; I take my daughter to day-care and I go to work. I normally try to make my day cheerful and of course productive. I put my dreadful morning behind me and I focus on reading, writing or whatever other task I have to do in the office… Now that I’m seated and comfortable, I convince myself that tomorrow I’ll be a bit luckier and I prepare myself for another day…

Somebody calls me to the office and tells me that the workplace bus is up and running once again. I feel blessed and I forget about the last few painful days. Traveling on “my bus”, I watch with pity and solidarity all those people at those jam-packed bus stops, where it seems like they’ll never leave… I ask myself time and time again whether things will ever change. I would like to think they will, that at least my daughter will live to see it.

Is that being a conformist or just really hopeful thinking? Well you know what they say, hope is the last thing you lose…

13 thoughts on “My Morning Odyssey in Havana…

  • Because my father was Head of Station in Vienna for SIS (MI6) from May 1945 onwards and he died there in 1997, my knowledge of the USSR is based upon knowledge of their activities in the occupied countries of Eastern Europe.
    I remember well having a sub-machine gun stuck in my belly by a Mongolian soldier when travelling by train from Klagenfurt to Vienna and the “allied” jeeps patrolling central Vienna with a military policeman from each of the four countries, Russia, France, the US and the UK.
    I recall the Russians snatching people at gunpoint from within the British Zone as late as August 1952.
    I have never been tempted to visit the USSR or Russia, so my knowledge of their economy is limited, my experiences being of their activities and practices.
    I do also have memories of their endeavors to enter the UK market with agricultural machinery and even cars. But all were rather crude.

  • Thanks for your answers — I’ll mull I this and try to learn more about how the Cuban economy really works. I can see that it is not the same as understanding the Soviet economy ., even in its complex later years. There are clearly differences which matter too.

    As I said I wouldn’t ask any more pesky questions it feels like pedantry to note that Russia didn’t use the other 14 republics for a marketplace, and that although it turned out no republic was there willingly, they actually got implicit subsidies from energy-rich Russia if you valued inter-republican trade at world market prices. It just meant a terrible economic system

    Russian population is now above 144 million by the way — and I’m not counting Crimea in that. It’s not wise to fall for all the ‘Russia: too sick to matter’ you can read. Which doesn’t mean they do not have huge mortality problems remaining.

  • Thanks. I decided not to ask some more pesky questions below

  • China already supplies Cuba with Yutong coaches for Transtur, Gaviota, Viazul and Astro on credit and earlier this year extended further credit.
    The costs of the proposal you make would be massive and although making life easier for the citizens, would not bring any additional revenues to the regime.

  • See my response Judith to your enquiry of me below that of emagicmtman.

  • Alas! Cuba lacks the capital to make such investment in what needs to be done to make public transport more efficient. For example, instead of relying on just Metro-Buses which radiate out from the center, connected by other lines, the problems in Havana could be solved with a monorail system radiating out east-to-west, north-to-south, with interconnecting bus lines radiating out from the monorail stops, but this would cost billions. Likewise, on the inter-provincial level, additional billions of dollars to complete the Autopista Nacional beyond Ciego de Avila the rest of the way to Santiago and Guantanamo, plus investing in a major upgrade of Ferrocarilles de Cuba. With such investments, the workforce could greatly increase its productivity, not to mention satisfaction in overcoming one of the most onerous traumas of daily life in Cuba. On visits when I stayed out in La Lisa and San Agustin, it was a real ordeal taking the P-14 into Centro and Habana Vieja, and even moreso taking it home at night (at least taking it in, I could go to the end of the line, thus obtaining a seat, then back towards the center; this was not the case when I had to catch it at the Parque de Fraternidad, where hundreds of people were always trying to storm a single bus!). Let us hope China, or some other source, could help Cuba with the investment capital needed to construct the needed infrastructure. In the meantime, public transport is a daily hell, and paying a day’s salary for a ride in a colectivo is not really an option for most folks.

  • In comparing the USSR to Cuba, you are ignoring the relative sizes of the economies. Russia itself had at the time of the USSR a population of about 150 million – since declined to 135 million and held thirteen other countries in thrall providing both an enormous marketplace and labour.
    One of the numerous difficulties facing Cuba in endeavoring to attract foreign companies and investment is the insistence that the State supplies the workers which it both selects and pays. Foreign companies have to pay the State a fixed sum for each employee and that sum is about one thirteenth of what the State then pays the employee.
    If the foreign ’employer’/investor decides that any worker in particular is worthy of higher reward and makes a direct payment to them, that is corruption as it is contrary to the agreement signed with the State.
    The outside world tends to underestimate the degree of power and control which the Castro regime exerts over the citizenry. Dissatisfaction with the regime is commonplace, but voicing it publicly is a crime for which one can be jailed. It is in consequence not possible for opposition groups to form.
    There may be a few (indeed there are already a few) companies prepared to accept the rules and regulations imposed by the regime, but many Directors have found themselves sentenced to jail for the afore-described “corruption”. Another problem has been created by the US Helms-Burton Amendment. Directors of foreign (non-US) companies trading with Cuba have found themselves banned from entry to the US – this for example includes Directors of Sherritt International a Canadian company.
    I hope that the above fairly describes why I express doubt about sudden additional foreign investment in Cuba. Only time will tell whether companies in the US will invest heavily when they have fully examined the challenges described. But, I would be the first to agree that a dollar has no conscience.

  • I am pleased you answered my questions, so I hope you won’t mind when I point out why the answers are still unsatisfying. I have no doubt about the inefficiency of command economies, and the merits of entrepreneurship.

    However the profoundly inefficient Soviet economy made a priority of mass transport. It wasn’t just because of the fuel advantage. Investment in the amazing Moscow metro, I must bitterly admit, was a triumph of Stalinism
    Until the bitter end urban transport was ok.
    It saves fuel

    So given the popular dissatisfaction, why so slow?

    I have no idea how rapidly foreign investment in Cuba will grow or not. I do know there was a breathless rush to invest in the USSR despite no better legal regime or rule of law. Are you very sure this won’t happen?

  • Yes. I am told by my in-laws that public transportation was decent. Pre-1959 Havana had more cars per capita than any major European city. Why can’t lots of things that Cubans use be built in Cuba is the question. The answer: Castro-style socialism discourages capital investment and work productivity.

  • To answer your last question first, the beneficiary of “the current mess” is the Castro regime. The essential for dictatorship is to hold total power and control, and that is what they have achieved and constantly strive cto maintain.

    Unless GAESA establishes a bicycle making company to add the the 57 companies it already controls, the manufacture of bicycles is not possible. But you raise an interesting subject, for in the UK during the late 19th and early 20th century a blacksmith in Sussex, England named William Morris started making bicycles. He then made a car (the ‘bull-nosed’ Morris. Eventually he was the largest car manufacturer in Europe. Even Americans are aware of the Morris Minor and of the Morris Mini which was declared to be the best car of the 20th century – largely because of design including the first use of a transverse engine. The current Mini is 14″ longer than the original and is now made by BMW.

    The significant point about Morris is that he achieved his success as an individual in a capitalist society. Doing so just isn’t possible under a communist regime.

    China sold Cuba just over 1 million bicycles and practically all of them are still in use as ownership of a bicycle is a great asset. However, if you try to pick one up, be careful not to strain yourself as they are astonishingly heavy being made of iron. I cannot be certain that they are a product of “the Iron Age” but they feel like it!

  • This means it was more or less OK before then?

    I had read about the big move to bicycles in the Special. Period. . And resulting spare parts debacle
    Any similar ideas now? Can’t. bicycles be manufactured in Cuba ?

    Who benefits from the current mess, if anyone?

  • The government (psst….Castros) decided to de-prioritize public transportation during the Special Period to save fuel. It has never recovered.

  • Does any reader have an analysis about how urban transport became such a low priority?

    Please don’t just blame it all on either the Castros or el bloqueo.

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