By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — Not too long ago (just before I had access to alternative media), I found out that there had been a kind of protest in Havana by watching an opposition video. A group of unhappy bicitaxi drivers had taken to the street because of some kind of government abuse. I don’t remember why exactly it was that they were protesting or whether their demands were met.
I was also aware about the Ladies in White, who marched every Sunday when they left a church, and peacefully asked that their family members, prisoners of conscience, be released. They were often beaten and interrupted by gangs of riffraffs who had been trained by State Security to repress them, in name of the Cuban people who have no sense of civility and don’t go to a rally or fight the opposition of their own accord; as they need to receive orders for everything and they’ve been trained to be this way for decades.
I later read in a religious magazine that the Catholic Archbishop Jaime Ortega asked Raul, in a meeting, not to repress the women when leaving his church. Raul denied his ties to the harassment of these women but after that conversation, “the people” “casually” stopped repressing them with the habitual “spontaneous” frequency.
The latest in civil protests in Cuba, at least with impact, has been the “collective private taxi drivers strike”. As usual, the Government isn’t going to the root of the problem and is trying to resolve it with impositions, which far from being the solution, only worsen our adverse reality. The government wants to impose a cut in fares, which the population very much wants, but without creating the conditions necessary for this service to continue to be profitable and sustainable for those who offer it.
If we talk here about percentages of earnings, we would understand that it is unfair for taxi drivers to have earnings of 300%. Every multinational company, the ones which make billions per year, only receive 15 or 20%. However, such would be a very cold and inaccurate assessment of Cuban reality.
Our country has been worked out for the “yumas” (foreigners), not for “ordinary Cubans” and no supplies are stable or secure, not in their prices or availability. In the case of collective taxi drivers, they work using stolen diesel because the one CUPET sells is so expensive that each fare would have to be 20 pesos instead of 10. Furthermore, what really counts here isn’t the percentage of earnings, but the sum of these earnings in a day’s worth of work and their daily expenditure.
In 90% of cases, a collective taxi driver is only the driver of the car and must pay 40 CUC to its owner per day and try to make another 40 CUC for himself. This isn’t a business; it’s a job, because 40 CUC is a fair salary in reality. It’s surely much less that what somebody earns doing the same job in another country in our continent.
On the other hand, these old almendrones cost between 15,000 and 30,000 CUC; not mentioning spare parts that need to be invented or imported from the US, where they are considered “classic” cars and therefore are more expensive; plus the abusive taxes that the infamous Cuban customs apply when they arrive. Moreover, mechanics, encouraged by the State’s own prices for necessary goods and services, want to earn their 30 or 40 CUC per day and so charge a lot for their work.
This is an economy which is growing in parallel to the official economy we have here. It’s more in keeping with and better adapted to daily reality, however, it’s still an economy which more than half of our people can’t participate in. Singers, artists, athletes, many self-employed workers, opportunist leaders, doctors who have done missions abroad, those who regularly receive remittances, and so on, are more or less “on the scene” like Jacob Forever says.
The rest, still the majority, with similar incomes to the ones they received in the 1980s, live in the most absurd poverty earning less than 1 USD per day, with university degrees or technical certificates hanging on the wall and doing essential jobs: teachers, lab technicians, garage technicians. They only see what they need from the other side of the glass window in the shopping mall or let the 10 peso almendrones pass them by, while waiting in long lines for jam-packed buses which take a lifetime to get anywhere. This is our sad reality, which has only gotten worse in the last 2.7 decades, and this has to do with the two blockades we have here in Cuba, the first domestic and then the foreign one.
However, the subtle way that protests are held here, because they are banned and you have to avoid leaders seeing you, catches our attention. Without signs, without explicitly saying what they are protesting, because they can take away your license and lock whoever called for it up and therefore, by killing the dog, they get rid of the rabies.
Here in Mayari, Holguin where I live, there was a similar strike last year which continues in some way or another. Horse drawn cart drivers had their fares reduced by half. The government took away their group license which declares 10% and they became a simple category, which has to only pay a fixed rate. However, this didn’t have any results because nobody paid more in their affidavit at the end of the day when declaring the 10%. That is to say, they would earn half of what they used to but still had the same expenses. Most decided to stop working to see if the government would change its mind, and what happened?
They went and visited all of them and were individually threatened with having their licenses taken away if they didn’t provide service and investigated to see if they could find the alleged leaders, claiming that “they were being used by the enemy.” That was the end of the strike; although, today, there aren’t even half of the cars working on the road that there were before.
Before, you had to wait for them to fill up with passengers, now it costs half (1 peso) but you have to wait in long lines until the next one comes along. This is the kind of solution that the government knows how to find.
However, it’s still very encouraging: these protests are a sign that our people are waking up and it’s precisely in the private sector where this is happening. That’s why the government is afraid that we Cubans will lose the tie (read here: big noose) with the State and that individual businesses will grow. This is the fear of empowerment that Obama was talking about. Fidel didn’t get terrified and throw him to the dogs just for the hell of it.
There’s no doubt that rescuing the right to protest freely is among the many human rights we need to urgently rescue: it’s an essential premise of freedom and democracy.