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.
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).
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.
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.
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.