HAVANA TIMES, April 5 — “The guaguas (buses) are really bad. You can spend two hours waiting at a bus stop for a ride that only takes fifteen minutes,” explained medical student Roberto Diaz, while Jorge Avila added, “Plus, by the time they get to you, they’re already packed.”
Yamile Gonzalez works as an administrator at a hospital located nine miles from her house. Nevertheless, she needs to leave home by 6 a.m. to get there by 8:00 a.m. “We go through a lot of trouble getting to work. The buses never show up or when they do, they’re full,” she complained.
“People are going through this because there aren’t enough vehicles on the road. More than half of the buses are out of service due to a lack of spare parts to repair them,” said Luis H. Blanco, a public transportation inspector.
To learn the reasons that have produced the latest national crisis in this area, we interviewed the deputy minister of Transportation, Eduardo Rodriguez, who admits that about “30 percent of our buses are out of service for various reasons.”
Chinese buses with American hearts
Deputy Minister Rodriguez explained, “We’re facing serious financial difficulties and over the last three years these have played a significant role, because when you don’t have the money, it’s much more complicated to make a decision about purchasing.”
Nevertheless other difficulties were created because of the Ministry of Transportation (Mitrans) having bought Chinese and Russian buses with American engines, depite the US trade embargo making it difficult and expensive to get spare parts for those vehicles.
Unofficial sources say the Cuban government had obtained assurances concerning subsequent sales of parts and components, but later the suppliers didn’t comply. The deputy minister acknowledges that “the US blockade isn’t some myth” and says that in the future “it’s something that must be kept in mind.”
Public transportation isn’t the only place where US vehicles are paralyzed due to the lack of spare parts. This occurs in various industries and even in the public health care system, though no one can explain why they keep buying equipment from that country.
The slow pace of bureaucracy
The other factor in the crisis is that the Cuban import company working with Mitrans takes months to decide on buying the parts that the ministry requests, time during which the buses sit idle and passengers agonizing at the bus stops.
Rodriguez assured us that “all of this is undergoing reform right now to create a purchasing company with a different management, one that’s more oriented to satisfying our customers.”
Up until now, the process is as follows: When a vehicle breaks down, a request is issued for the needed parts. A study of purchasing options is then conducted over several months until the OK is given to buy the part from one of these. However, the ministry still has to wait for the procurement process to be completed and the parts to actually be delivered – an overall process that can take up to a year.
In the meantime, while they carry out their reorganization, people continue to suffer at bus stops and vehicles continue to circulate overloaded. At the same time, it becomes more difficult to put the mothballed buses back into service “because the off-lined vehicles continue to deteriorate,” explained the deputy minister.
The costs and organization of transportation
Eduardo Rodriguez noted that there’s a financial component that cannot be ignored. “In the transportation of passengers, the subsidy levels are very large, because the population receives a service that is almost totally subsidized.”
He adds that “the per-person cost of a one kilometer route of urban public transportation costs almost the same anywhere in the world, nearly $1 (USD).” However the fare for a Cuban citizen is less than a sixtieth of that – about 1.6¢ (USD).
In any case, even beyond the financial concerns, there remain unanswered questions such as why in Havana there are less than 1,000 public buses and over 3,000 in the hands of state-run companies.
The deputy minister told us that most of the company-owned vehicles are so old that they wouldn’t stand up to more than a couple of trips daily. Nevertheless, the fact is that many of these buses pass through the city empty, and on weekends they make unofficial trips to tourist sites fairly distant from the capital.
Nor is it clear why Mitrans does not organize the thousands of private (truck and collective taxi) carriers of passengers by routes to establish a network that benefits the users, covering the whole city and not only those points that are the most profitable.
Rodriguez assured us that “we’re working on many new things,” yet he declined to disclose anything because “people don’t deserve to hear announcements that for one reason or another don’t materialize later.”