HAVANA TIMES – “There aren’t any buses,” Misleydis is told on the other side of the line. The answer is the same the two or three times she calls the bus offices every week, at about 5 AM, to go from Artemisa to Havana.
Misleydis sells cheese, meat, and root vegetables; she either exchanges them for clothes or electrical appliances which she then resells in Alquizar, the oldest town in Artemisa, where she was born 52 years ago. There, she is known as the jabera, a woman who makes a living by transporting packages to the country’s capital.
She’s been traveling to Havana for over three years “out of necessity”. If she’s not going “every day” it’s because she doesn’t always have things to sell or exchange, or a way to get there. That’s because “transport problems in rural areas aren’t recent, like everybody thinks,” it’s been a long time that “the people ruling” in Cuba “have completely forgotten about Cubans in the countryside.”
In any case, private transport has been the thing that has allowed her to make a living, even if sometimes she spends more money on the trip than she what she herself earns. She takes a rikimbill (bicycle with a motor) to the center of Alquizar two or three times a week; and then, a maquina (shared car with numerous passengers) to Havana, that can cost her 150-200 pesos because “there isn’t a fixed price.”
Even though fuel shortages on the island have affected industries, freight, and passenger transport consistently over decades, the public and private transport crisis got a lot worse at the beginning of the second trimester in 2023.
The Cuban Government has attributed the collapse of these transport systems in recent months to poor distribution of fuel at gas stations, growing demand for electricity and the “complex energy crisis” that supplier countries are experiencing.
Not only have public transport services in Havana been dramatically reduced, with only 34% of the 894 buses belonging to the Provincial Transport Company working in early July; but in western areas such as Artemisa and Mayabeque, many intermunicipal routes have disappeared, or the ones that still exist are often not sticking to their timetables.
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Statistics from the Provincial Transport Board indicate that in Havana – where there is less than one bus for every 7000 inhabitants and gasoline and diesel sales have been rationed like elsewhere in the country -, approximately 600,000 passengers need transport every day, 89.3% of whom take state-run services.
Meanwhile, prices have shot up in the capital in the private sector, after a law that tried to cap private transport drivers (known as boteros) fares came into effect on June 9, 2023, a control mechanism that has been applied unsuccessfully in previous times of crisis.
A law that capped private transport prices has also been in effect since 2020. The law triggered a boycott which, in accordance with the Cuban Association of Independent Transport Drivers in Havana, Mayabeque and Artemisa, involved over 70% of the boteros and made many of them hand in their work license because “botear” (driving private means of transport) was no longer a profitable business.
The new measure seeks to “update” the cost of fares, establishing 46 private transport routes, with an average distance of 11.6 km and fares from 46 pesos for short journeys (such as the one on the corner of G and 23rd Streets in the center to Alamar, or from Virgen del Camino to Vibora Street), up to 170 pesos for long journeys (such as the one from Guanabo to Old Havana).
Havana authorities have deployed inspectors to enforce the law, by means of heavy fines, at places where boteros park (piqueras). In reality, drivers set their own fares.
On June 9, many taxi drivers stopped working to express their unhappiness. Ever since then, the price cap hasn’t been respected; they charge fares at the beginning of the journey; or they agree with passengers to say the trip cost what the law stipulates (45 or 75 pesos, for example, instead of 100), and thereby avoid fines.
Nevertheless, Ernesto, a botero living in the Havana municipality of La Lisa, says that he sleeps “peacefully and without fear.” He feels sorry for the passengers, but “it’s the Government’s fault.” “Gasoline prices are through the roof, a tire costs you an eye and if a part breaks, nobody gives you a single peso,” the 46-year-old driver says, who explains that he can’t lower his fare because he has two children, and their mother is sick in hospital.
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Thirty-year-old Doctor Alicia says that “transport is awful.” Even though she doesn’t go out much because she studies online, the few times she does, she sees bus stops that are pretty full, which proves that “nothing’s come by for a while.” Generally speaking, “there are barely any buses.”
Up until recently, the professor at University of Havana Med School was going to give classes on her electric scooter, but the engine broke down, which “is super mega expensive” and she’s afraid to hitchhike and get robbed “with how bad things are on the street.”
Alicia is expecting the worst to come in September, when the academic year starts again, because traveling from her home, located in the Boyeros municipality, to school, on the border of Marianao and Playa, will cost her between 350-400 pesos; and the “same back.” As she earns 5000 pesos per month, it’d be “impossible” to spend 800 pesos every day on transport.
She didn’t have good transport options to get to work even when the transport situation was “normal”. Today, cars “charge you what they want.” It could be 150 or 200 pesos from Santiago de las Vegas to Central Havana, when it should be 100. “Then, the driver explains that if an inspector stops them, he didn’t talk about prices.”
She admits that her class is a spin-off of the series “Squid Game”: “we’re fewer and fewer every time.” Almost all of her classmates have gone to work in cafes or warehouses, and even though it isn’t easy to say it, she’s happier “being a housewife than a worker.”
With a university degree and postgraduate course under her belt, and about to begin a master’s degree, this young mother thinks it’s “harsh” that she is “still dependent on everyone” after studying so much, and needs to depend on financial help from her husband or parents “to buy even a tartlet.”
Alicia’s husband, who drives a Lada, has been lucky because he hasn’t really had to buy gasoline “on the slide”. When he has, it’s been “first-hand”, that is to say, for 200 pesos per liter. In Havana, a liter of fuel can cost up to 500 pesos (just over 2 USD) and “a great deal more” in every other province.
Recently, the Cuban Minister of Transport, Eduardo Rodriguez Davila, admitted that “the reduced services of passenger and freight transport” are not only the result of fuel shortages, but also a lack of funding.
The official said that the country’s main transport bases “have been operating without practically any spare parts over the past three years” and availability of units “has been under 50%”.
According to the Government’s version, a fund in magnetic dollars (MLC), created in early 2023, has made it possible to repair over 1000 means of transport; over 30,000 vehicles have been legalized and state-owned transport leases have increased in the past few months.
But the reality is that not even other measures announced with a lot of fanfare to keep the crisis in check, such as the sale of electric tricycles, bus donations, using tourism minibuses for city routes, the purchase of a ferry or making use of worker transport, have stopped regular Cubans from arriving late anywhere, after losing a lot of time and money to do so.
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Between the ups and downs of fuel supplies, some employees have been allocated transport or have been given the option to work remotely. The rest need to resort to all kinds of options to get around. Walking long distances or traveling on a bike or electric motorbikes or wasting a good part of your day in at bus stops, trying to hunt down a gacela (minibus), car or bus. In short, getting around has become a lot more exhausting and tiring.
Maikel, who didn’t want to give his real name either, says that he only has to go to his workplace, one of the Havana offices of the Artistic and Literary Promotion Company, Artex S.A., twice a week ever since the pandemic.
The 33-year-old man says that it was in April 2023 that “the transport problem began to be more strongly felt in the capital.” Up until now, his bosses have been understanding when he gets to work late or just can’t go into the office. “It isn’t a particularly long journey,” but traveling from where he lives, in Altahabana (Boyeros) to 5th Avenue (Playa) is “an odyssey.”
As he can’t even think about “getting on a P10 (bus) or a gacela” that pass through his area, he only has private cars “at his disposal”. When everything began to get worse, self-employed drivers were charging 50-100 pesos per journey, “sometimes more.” “I’d pay 200-300 pesos every day for the trip; that is to say, the wages he earns don’t cover travel expenses, Maikel says, who barely makes 5000 pesos.
When new fares were announced on Friday June 9th, Maikel knew that they would never be respected. “They’ve done this before and we all know that it never works.” He guesses leaders do this so that people believe that they are concerned about the issue, but he sees that “there is a kind of business” between inspectors and drivers.
The Artex employee recalls that the Government said, in late June, that the situation would improve because there would be fuel, but “urban transport is still in the same rut.” He knows “from experience” that he won’t be able to catch a bus in Havana before 8 AM or after 4 PM.
Today, almost every botero (collective taxi) charges 75 pesos for a journey, “which is still expensive.” According to Maikel, many passengers only think about reaching their destination quickly and don’t even think about how much the journey costs, even though they should. Others even prefer not to go to work; it’s cheaper to have a day’s pay taken from your wages than to pay for a taxi.
Another Havana resident, 29-year-old Jose is a regular victim of transport shortages because his mother lives in Guanajay (Artemisa) and he tries to go and see her at least once a week. It’s only when his family sends money from the US that he gives himself the luxury of paying for a private car from the El Lido (Marianao) terminal to Guanajay.
The atmosphere at El Lido has always been interesting because “the people responsible for dealing with the public, work for the private drivers.” Plus, “they’d pretend before when they were paid off to call for people, but now they do this without hiding it.” The fare of a journey costs between 300-500 pesos nowadays, which is “abusive”.
The journey from Havana to Guanajay seems less complicated, because there is more transport available, but “you either hire a car, which can cost you over 1000 pesos, or you do the journey in stretches, which is sometimes more expensive.” He believes that “this will never get better.” “We broke people will continue to be the ones that need to leave the city to see our families.”
In Artemisa, Dalila, a 61-year-old housewife, must travel regularly from her home, in Bauta, to the hospital in San Antonio de los Baños. She explains that there was a bus before that used to leave at 6 AM, 8 AM and 10 AM, and at 1 PM and 4 PM; and “she would go back in time.” She’d always took the 6 AM bus and come back on the 11 AM bus, because the journey takes almost an hour.
It’s been months now that the bus doesn’t leave every day and when it does, there are only two departures: at 8 AM and 4 PM. “Now, I have to spend a whole day waiting for the bus to come, because coming back via La Novia del Mediodia (Havana) is very expensive and twice as long. It’s crazy. If a bus doesn’t show, I have to bother a neighbor to come get me on his motorbike, but what if it isn’t charged up?”
Many university students who don’t have boarding and have to go to academic centers such as the “José Antonio Echeverría” Technological University in Havana, Havana University, the Superior Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Havana, the University of Information Sciences or Artemisa University, which are hard-to-reach for people who don’t live relatively close.
David, who studies Electrical Engineering at CUJAE and lives in Artemisa’s Caimito municipality, explains that he can’t go into boarding because his mother needs help around the house and he can’t ask for time off either because he’s finishing his dissertation.
It’s “very painful” for this 24-year-old young man when the train doesn’t pass by, which leaves him under the CUJAE bridge, and he has to spend almost 500 pesos to get to school. There aren’t any more trucks in every municipality that used to pick you up on the Central Highway for only two pesos, so his “only salvation is for the Havana- train not to break down.”
Yadira has had to wait for almost two hours for the route 14 gacela (minibus) on more than one occasion. When this happens, the 38-year-old social worker, who lives in La Lisa, has to get a car to reach Old Havana because the P5 doesn’t pass by either. “It costs me 100 pesos to go and it’s the same coming back.”
Yadira doesn’t have lunch sometimes because a pizza costs her a lot and she has to save up “in case”, as there are drivers “who don’t seem to have heard about” the new prices. She normally loses more than an hour to get home. She felt really sorry for her son’s sitter recently because she picked him up after 6 PM.
Boris, who rides his bike as his form of transport at 51 years old, like he did back in the 1990s, says that “anyone who has to travel with children to daycare centers or schools are the ones that have it the hardest.”
The photographer feels sorry when he sees “women with their young children in their arms under the sun, full of sweat, to go to a pediatric hospital and get their tests done.” He doesn’t understand how people can accept this as normal, at least for people who don’t receive remittances or earn wages in any foreign currency.
He empathizes with the owner of an old taxi, who covers any breakdown or expensive fuel prices out of his own pocket; as well as the CUJAE student who lives in Central Havana and “wakes up at 4 AM and walks to an avenue where some artefact on wheels can help him get to school.”
In the meantime, he tries to answer his own question: how can you produce in a country where workers can’t even travel around normally?” Boris believes that “it’s been proven that neither private cars, with unaffordable prices, awful conditions and questionable safety; or state-run buses, that travel intermunicipal routes, that are sealed shut and don’t have air conditioning; or electric taxis, will fix the problem.”