Will Havana Taxi Drivers Up the Ante?

By Irina Echarry  (Photos: Juan Suarez)

HAVANA TIMES – These days in Havana there is only one topic: transportation. Getting to work or going home is a daunting task. The matter is not new; it has only been aggravated since on February 8 the provincial government made public strict enforcement measures for private collective taxi drivers. Threatened with the withdrawal of their licenses, the taxi drivers have taken justice in their hands.

In the capital chaos prevails. At first a polarized atmosphere was felt, as is customary in our country, with some people defending the boteros (private collective taxi drivers) and others against them. After almost twenty days, people are sure that these measures will not resolve the problem. The drivers have been operating on partial strike, with winds of  a national strike announced starting today. The government has not spoken again.

Havana Times toured several points of the capital to take the pulse of the situation and found that almost nobody wants to give their name.

People talk informally, but when they see the tape recorder in front of them they think twice about it.  We respect the anonymity of those who contributed to this report.

To catch a taxi on 23rd, Monte or Neptuno Streets, it is necessary to know the exact hand signs. If not, they pass you by and do not stop, even if they have empty seats. At the El Curita Park in Centro Habana, starting point for several taxi routes, you can see the drivers talking among themselves and the people tormented in search of a solution to reach their destinations.

To go from Old Havana to Alamar there is no fixed point for the collection of passengers; the people are piled up in the Central Park and outside of the Martí Theater. Is a daily adventure – of pushing and mistreating others to secure a seat in one of the cars – something that not everyone is willing to deal with.

Dalia works as a teacher in a primary school and travels frequently from El Cotorro to San José to help a sick sister: “Look, first the trip cost 10 pesos, then it went up to 15 and it was 20 a while ago. It’s a reality that our wages do not resist those prices; and the drivers are not aliens, they know very well what we make. Something had to be done, that’s why I was happy with the fixing of the rates. What I didn’t imagine was that things were going to get worse. ”

What Dalia describes as getting worse is more than that. Many private taxi drivers have decided to work less and leave peak times to the inefficient public transportation. Around five in the afternoon the buses circulate with their doors open, with people hanging from them like clusters; The image recalls the decade of 1990s, even though there are more buses circulating than back then.

Mario has been driving since he was 18 years old; in 2010 he applied for his driver’s license and since then he hasn’t stopped driving the car his grandfather left him. “We pay high taxes; we solve a problem that the government has never been able to fix, so why do they treat us like that?
I work 10 hours a day, he notes, nobody gives me anything. Now I’m going out less, just during quiet hours, none of the peak morning nor afternoon rush. I cannot just park the car because I would feel it a lot, but at peak times I don’t go out. We have to show that we have power. ”

It is true, the collective taxis are a relief for those who can pay the prices that the drivers impose, because their licenses give them the power to set the price according to supply and demand. That is why they reject government intervention in the fixing of prices and routes, since they don’t provide them with any means to carry out their work.

Most taxi drivers wield a defensive and justified speech: the high prices of fuel and spare parts, as well as the large sum they must pay in taxes. And although people recognize that such is true, some do not understand why they should retaliate with the people.

Daniela studies first year of speech therapy. Every day she must travel from Regla to Ciudad Libertad, in Mariano. “The worst are the mornings, there are no buses that pass on a regular schedule and we have to be at school on time. The solution is the collective taxis. Everyone knows that Regla and Havana are close to each other, it is an abuse to charge 20 pesos for that trip. I have set my own price, when I get out of the cab I give the driver 10 pesos, I don’t know if they let me get by with it because I am young woman. I act dumbfounded when they give me a bad look and the next day I repeat the same thing. One scolded me once, noting that they have to pay for everything, that life is expensive. “I told him that this is not so: you pay with the money that we give you for the trip. Because they are not victims, what they charge us is quite expensive. ”

Carlos, a retired construction worker from the municipality of Centro Habana, thinks it’s not fair: “I also have to pay for a lot of things and my retirement is not enough to eat on. The easiest thing to do is to raise the fares at the expense of the population. If they weren’t in agreement with the conditions, why didn’t they protest from the beginning? Why didn’t they stand in front of the government and demand rebates or facilities when they took out their licenses? Ah no, it’s easier to abuse the other person who is worse off than you. It’s sad; this country is upside down because there is no longer solidarity. Now with the new measures nothing will improve, on the contrary. ”

A young butter cookie seller at the corner of the Coppelia ice cream parlor points out: “It’s crazy, look at that collective taxi that just passed by empty. This is the way it has been for days. Who pays? We the poor. It is true that nobody here has decent conditions to work, to live. It is absurd that the taxi drivers have to pay for their tires at the same price as someone who does not provide that service. The most logical thing is that they have some advantage, since a wholesale market still hasn’t happened.”

The discontent is evident, just go to a bus stop and approach a group of people.

The driver of one of the State owned yellow and black taxis, an old man who has been driving all his life, says that the tariff from Havana to Alamar should be ten pesos. That’s what these taxis charged for years, but a few days ago one of his co-workers charged 20, when people complained, he used the same reasoning as the private collective taxi drivers.

The old driver says: “Yes, it’s true, we take care of everything in the car (he refers to the repairs, the spare parts, the fuel), but after we finish the required mileage of the day of 140 kilometers, we have 60 kilometers for us. There is no need to charge so much. ”

However, the meaning of the word “need” is so erratic, so susceptible to change, to the views of every person who uses it.

An official from the Ministry of Transport says that in the last four months of last year more than 200 buses entered the country, both the articulated ones that come from Belarus and the Chinese Yutongs used on certain routes. “Where are these buses? I thought that things were planned out: first they take the measure fixing prices, then the collective taxis protest and when things get complicated, they would put the new buses on the streets to counteract. However, it has not been like that”.

On the internet in several places an anonymous letter with demands raised by the private taxi owners is circulating: they demand a reduction of fuel, tire prices, etc.  They announce a national strike of as of today February 27. However, on the street not everyone is informed.

A driver chimes in: “Strike? That’s a strong word. If they catch you in that they will surely seize your car. I want to fix this situation because it is affecting me, but without getting into politics. ”

Another who is close by interrupts: “That word in Cuba is prohibited and can be misinterpreted. People say they speak on behalf of everyone and implicate you. It is true that we are united to try to resolve this problem in the best possible way for all the parties, but here we do not have culture of strikes, if they dive into this we will lose. It is best to negotiate with the government: if they want prices to fall  ask them what are they going to give us in return? But to start talking about a strike is useless; they won’t listen to us.”

From the window of a red 50s car comes a voice: “That’s exactly why we are like this, because we are afraid. A strike is what’s needed. Let them [the government] see what happens when we don’t work. Let them suffer how it complicates the situation for the population. And the people, full of courage, should take them to task. ”

Some taxi drivers believe that the latest measures have only served to put people against him. Others, on the other hand, argue that they have never been liked by the people, because they are envious, because they believe they are rich, and now they will not support them in any protest.

The general population is the one who always suffers the whims of Power, be it political, economic, religious, or of any nature. Ordinary people who need to arrive early to work to feed their families are worried about this situation. Most, absorbed with dealing with their daily shortages, blindly approve government action because they think of their pockets. Others allude that they are only a patch, something superficial that does not delve into the root of the matter.

Perhaps it is time to overcome that division between the population and the taxi drivers, who are also part of them. To many what seems needed is for them to join forces, imagine a better country and work for it, not only react when the pocket book is affected.

Meanwhile, until that conviction comes, uncertainty reigns. What will happen starting Monday? Will there be a deeper strike than this one that is lived today on the streets?

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2 thoughts on “Will Havana Taxi Drivers Up the Ante?

  • What a mess.

  • Fixing prices does not work. It always leads to scarcity.

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