Public Transportation in Cuba: Moving Backwards

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuba’s public transportation system is chaotic because of a lack of norms and supervision.
Cuba’s public transportation system is chaotic because of a lack of norms and supervision.

HAVANA TIMES — As far as its public transportation system is concerned, Cuba has two choices: to continue doing the same thing for another 50 years or to study the experiences of other countries and apply those that best suit the situation at home, without the need of reinventing the wheel.

Transportation Ministry experts acknowledge that things have never worked as they should. It is true that, during the first years of the revolution, the transportation system was severely affected by the US embargo (as part of a strategy aimed at generating discontent among the people), but American and English buses have long ceased to exist and the situation has not improved. Not even in the days of Soviet plenty did Cuba have a public transportation system capable of meeting people’s needs.

Cuba’s public transportation system has never fully met people’s needs in more than 50 years.
Cuba’s public transportation system has never fully met people’s needs in more than 50 years.

Long lines of people at bus stops aren’t anything new. My friends tell me that, in the 70s and 80s, going to the beach on a bus was a veritable odyssey, and getting home meant a pitched battle involving yelling, insults and even shoving among those scrambling to board the scarce buses.

When I arrived in Cuba as a special press envoy in 1989 (before the economic crisis hit), I was very much amused by an enormous billboard which showed a Cuban bus with the chaos and agony of Picasso’s Guernica painted inside it.

In the good old days, those with power got around in cars and those with money relied on Lanchar, a private taxi company that did pretty much the same thing privately-owned cabs do today. All the while, the vast majority of Cubans wrestled for a spot inside the country’s buses (1).

Transportation officials were unable to fix the bus problem and decided to dig deeper: they planned the creation of a subway system. But the economic crisis came along and they were forced to abandon that plan, relocating the metro to the surface, on the backs of the rickety buses people call “camels” (2).

Public transportation shortages continues to force many Cubans to hitchhike around the city.
Public transportation shortages continues to force many Cubans to hitchhike around the city.

At the beginning of the 90s, bus stops were free of long lines of people for the first time – but only because people knew it was futile to wait for a bus. The country had the vehicles but lacked fuel and spare pieces, so the buses were left to rot at parking lots.

The Public Transportation Chaos

No sooner did the country have a bit of money or credit than the government paid China hundreds of millions of dollars to buy locomotives, taxis and interprovincial and urban buses. Curiously enough, they decided to buy many with engines manufactured in the United States.

Bringing a spare part for a Caterpillar engine entails buying it in the United States secretly, transporting it to Canada, shipping it to the Dominican Republic or Panama and then to the island – a rather long journey that makes Cuba lose a fair amount of time and a lot of money.

The problem, however, is even more complex. The Ministry of Transportation isn’t only incapable of administering its own companies properly; it also proves unable to organize private transportation, which operates with less regulations than it would in a country with a market economy.

Private forms of transportation, which are important in Havana, are vital in the country’s interior.
Private forms of transportation, which are important in Havana, are vital in the country’s interior.

Boteros are individuals who use a privately-owned vehicle to transport people down set routes. The business brings cab drivers more than US $1,000 a month, enough for them to outfit their “old” automobiles with modern Japanese diesel engines.

Cuba is one of the few countries in which private cab drivers decide their working hours, the routes and even the fare one pays – and they do all this without having to present even a fuel bill.

The authorities are aware of this, but, instead of organizing things better, they apply steep fines on cab drivers so as to get more money out of them. This way, they cover some of the losses these cabs cause the State but leave passengers completely unprotected.

Private forms of transportation, which are important in Havana, are vital in the country’s interior.

Though Cuba is avowedly a planned economy, I know of capitalist societies in which authorities exercise greater control and organize and monitor activities in the sector more rigorously in the sphere of public transportation.

The Cuban Ministry of Transportation takes no action, even though they know boteros buy diesel on the black market at one fourth its gas station price and continue to charge each passenger more or less what the majority of Cubans earn in an entire day of work.

Cuba’s public transportation system is chaotic because of a lack of norms and supervision.
Cuba’s public transportation system is chaotic because of a lack of norms and supervision.

What’s more, there are more and more road accidents, but boteros are only required to take a one-week course and their vehicles are not subjected to regular inspections to verify their condition, as is common in many other parts of the world.

Every day, bus drivers, Cuba’s notorious guagüeros, harangue passengers with a phrase that could well become the slogan of the country’s public transportation system: “come on people, keep moving, let’s take a few more steps backward!”
(*) Visit Fernando Ravsberg’s blog.

8 thoughts on “Public Transportation in Cuba: Moving Backwards

  • All it will take is for one summer Olympics to be staged in Cuba and when it leaves like it did in Sochi, the downtown will be modernized, a monorail will transport people efficiently, the water system and sewage disposal will be updated, and hundreds of modern apartments will be available.
    I hear Mexico is ‘renting’ a night in one of the earthquake apartments as a way to fund repairs. Why not stage a ‘Olympic village’ in San Juan? I would like to rent a night in the US Olympic village. I would particularly pay for a ride on the monorail from the village to the ocean front venue. Where should I send my dollars?

  • My relatives in Cuba are at peace with my opposition to the Castros tyranny. They understand that Cuba’s internal embargo is the greater obstacle to progress for Cubans on the island. Your comments reflect the typical extreme anti-US left-wing radicalism that attempts to mask your hatred of America with the façade of concern for the Cuban people. You try to sell this concern without ever having traveled to Cuba and without even one close Cuban friend who has confided in you how they really feel. You have no idea how Cubans feel being treated as second and third-class citizens in their own country. You have no sense of the indignities that Cubans who live abroad must endure just to visit the land of their birth. These are not issues caused, even indirectly, by the US embargo. Your silly comments reflect an ignorance of the Cuban reality and no matter how many times you repeat the same jibberish, it will never ring true to those who understand the real problems Cubans face.

  • Saying that Cuba’s problems are all the fault of the Castros without even a mention of the U.S economic war on the island is just subjective and self-serving bullshit..
    The U.S. is trying to overthrow Cuba’s revolution and is using economic war to do so .
    You’re support for that war being waged against your own relatives speaks to the immorality of your position.

    You profess to be a Christian but Christ would be helping the poor and not adding to their suffering as you are doing.
    Lastly, Have you got that list of countries in which the U.S. intervened and established a democracy
    as you claim the U.S. is trying to do in Cuba.. ?
    You seem reluctant to come up with the facts to back up your (risible) claim.
    I’ll keep asking until you do .

  • Clap, clap, clap. Again, you get to leave when it gets to be too much. You have lived your life. You can obviously live on a well-earned retirement. You were born and lived in a place where most of your dreams were possible. Your successes or failures largely depended on your efforts. By “waste dump”, I hope that you can see beyond your “Anglo-Saxon, Calvinistic” perspective and try to see life as if your were a 25-year old Cuban with no hopes to own your own car or home. No real chance to support a family unless you learn to steal or swindle. Despite your University degree, you are better off hustling tourists. That, Sir, is the “waste”. BTW, justifying the Castros failings in Cuba by saying it is worse elsewhere is a weak argument. You don’t justify yelling at your wife by saying that at least you don’t beat her like your neighbor does his wife…do you?

  • I hardly see Cuba as a “waste dump!” Like you, I sympathize with my Cuban friends who have to endure these daily indignities, but Cuba is hardly alone in the struggles of its citizens for daily survival. Living in any Third World country will quickly disabuse you of your illusion of Cuba’s uniqueness. In fact, without the social safety net which The Revolution has had in place since the early 1960’s, life in many of these other nations is harsher for the poor (who constitute a majority in most of these countries). Of course the upper- and middle-classes in Third World nations enjoy a life similar to the First World, but most folks in the Third World live on a couple of dollars a day, or even less. For them, there is no public transportation, or if there is, it is as unsatisfactory as Cuba’s, if not worse. Also, for them, there is no health care; either they can’t afford it, or if available, it is in short staffed, short-supplied, overwhelmed public clinics and public hospitals in even worse shape than Cuba’s I have a friend who spends part of each year in Guatemala; a few years back, a passenger truck went off a mountain road and some of its passengers were killed and many injured. She spent weeks trying to find adequate medical care for some children who were survivors of this accident. Since these children and their families did not have adequate funds, they were turned away from numerous private clinics and hospitals. It was only gradually, over a period of several weeks, that she found treatment for all the children who survived.
    Since I have wife and two daughters (one still in high school, the other in college),I can hardly remain in Cuba year-round. Although I am semi-retired,still, I teach half the year, and enjoy it Maybe later, if I am not too old, I’d like to do a bit of teaching in Cuba; for now, I have obligations here.
    Finally, although Cuba may be a “jungle” for you, I experience it differently. Despite the hardships, the Cubans overcome and have forged a unique, and authentic, culture. Once they leave the island, theirs is no longer a Cuban culture (which is also a hybrid of Spanish (and Arabic), African, Native American and other cultures which all combine to become Cuban culture), but becomes a new hybrid, combined with the dominate culture to which they immigrate. Of course the dominate U.S. culture, despite the embargo, is having profound influences upon Cuban culture; still, it is an outside culture coming in to Cuba, but Cuba’s own culture remains the dominate. No where is there a “pure” culture (I believe Der Fuehrer tried that one out.), but I enjoy Cuba’s culture, and find that it brings out aspects in my own soul which have been repressed by the dominant Anglo-Saxon, Calvinistic culture of my origins.
    As the saying goes, “You can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.” Of course Cuba is neither a heaven (despite what some of my lefty compatriots say) nor hell (as the Miami dinosaurs would say); like most places, it lies somewhere betwixt the two. For me, it lies closer to heaven.

  • Here is where you and I differ. You have shared your personal experiences using Cuban public transportation with humor and levity. Your comment almost sounds charming. You intentionally or naively have failed to share why you believe transport in Cuba is so horrible. And why should you? You can endure almost anything for the few months at a time that you spend in Cuba and then when life just starts to get to you and your Yankee patience is worn out, you hop on a flight back to the People’s Republic of Vermont. I see it differently. I sympathize for my Cuban family and friends who can’t leave that waste dump. They are stuck on their sauna-like buses without a ‘maquina’ option. And why? Because of the megalomaniacal ego of a diaper-wearing despot. You see what I see but for you it’s like a trip to the zoo. For me its a real jungle.

  • My sympathies to all the Habaneros who have to rely on the buses. Going into, and out of, Habana on the P-14 became a daily ordeal. At least out in San Agustin I could walk to the end of the line (about a half-hour walk from where I was staying), but going back out to San Agustin from Centro was an ordeal; often, I’d have to run several blocks, following the bus, hoping to squeeze in the back door if a few passengers got off at the next stop (and, well launched into my 7th decade, my speed is much reduced) . Otherwise, I’d have to wait as I hopelessly watched bus after bus wizz by the stop, to full to stop. Once aboard, especially during September and October, when it is still hazy, hot and humid, I felt like I was entering a portable sauna, for by the time I got off I was wilted, my eyes smarting from the salty sweat pouring into them. When this proved too much, at least I had the option of hailing an “almondron” (private car, a jitney taxi which plies a fixed route). As the article states, however, this option would cost a Cuban a day’s wages.
    Incidentally, I know someone whose job used to be working for the public transport system (in the building immediately behind the ViAzul terminal in Neuvo Vedado). He job was to field the complaints of irate passengers calling in. She took her job seriously, but there was little she could do the resolve the complaints of the systems irate customers. As a result, she internalized her anxieties and became ever more upset. Fortunately, through a kindly uncle she was able to switch positions, and now has a job in the court system.
    Since Cuba lacks the capital to construct a subway or monorail system (like that of South Florida), in the meantime I agree with Fernando, that there has to be greater reliance on private carriers, be they “almendrones/machinas,” “camiones” etc., but also, as he states, there must be adequate safety standards, too.

Comments are closed.