HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 8 – “Two pesos? How do you figure two pesos?” I said, upset, almost screaming at the first driver who charged me double the cost of the ride, which up to then had only been a single peso.
“You can go and complain to the government. I’m not to blame if the law of supply and demand now reigns, or for the fact that they raised my taxes. You can go all the way to the provincial party level if you want. It’s like this lady: either you pay or get out,” the driver said calmly.
A young student who saw that I was infuriated said to me softly: “For several days now, all the drivers have been charging two pesos, and the best part is that the transportation inspectors know about it but nobody’s doing anything. Those who suffer are the people, because the price of alternative forms of transportation is in the clouds, while our wages remain intact.”
I felt like getting out right there, like not working anymore, like screaming holy hell in all directions. But I paid the two pesos and continued in my slow, uncomfortable and now more expensive trip.
Since the end of the year the Cuban people has received several pieces of bad news. Though these have the aim of improving our current economic model, they haven’t ceased to create more dissatisfaction among ordinary Cubans.
Such discontent is due to the planned layoffs of a half million or more state-sector workers; the gradual elimination from the ration book of peas, potatoes, cigarettes and, at the beginning of this year, products for personal hygiene. And now, most recently, there’s the application of the law of supply and demand in relation to private transportation, which has brought with it a considerable increase in the price of that service.
State sector workers in Guantanamo City were already complaining. Previously they had to start paying a peso for a ride in a truck or a horse-drawn wagon within the city, and now these drivers are charging two pesos or more. Logically, the public is annoyed, but especially because this makes it more difficult to get to work or school since wages are insufficient to pay this rate over the 24 business days of the month. The people most affected are those who have to catch two or three buggies to reach their destiny and then the same number to return home.
I spoke with some passengers to find out their opinions about this situation that has impacted trips in trucks, vans, cars, wagons and other vehicles.
A university student who lives in Guantanamo but studies in the neighboring city of Santiago de Cuba said that now “the situation has become more difficult especially for those people who study outside of province.
“I’m a third-year architecture student,” he said. “I was used to coming home every weekend because the dorm is depressing as well as boring on those days. Now I have no other alternative than to stay at school because the allowance I get from my parents isn’t enough to pay the price that the Santiago-Guantanamo truck drivers are charging now. Previously they charged 5 pesos, now it can go up as high as 15, and the worst thing is that you can’t complain, protest or do anything about it. Either you pay or you don’t ride, it’s that simple.”
“We workers are the ones who suffer the most every time the price of a product or service goes up,” grumbled a young worker at the Provincial Bus Terminal. “The cost for alternative transportation has gone up too much while are wages aren’t enough to satisfy even our basic needs, and now we have to add on to all that the exorbitant prices to get to our jobs.”
“Just today – the worker said – I had to pay 4 pesos to come from San Justo, to the east of the city, to get to the terminal. That’s something you might do from time to time, but when you make only 350 pesos a month you can’t spend 8 pesos a day on rides. The pocketbook can’t take it. I think the government should do something urgently because its own workers are the ones who are suffering the consequences. Our province is not prepared for this law (of supply and demand) to be applied.”
One Party activist said that private transportation companies have always violated the established fares. This was only the justification they needed to ratchet them up without having problems. According to her, most of them are taking advantage of the situation and are only interested in making more and more money at the cost of other people’s sweat. “Perhaps it’s true that the registration and licensing fees went up a little too much, but that doesn’t justify the exorbitant fare increases,” she explained.
“For example,” she continued, “the trucks that work for the municipalities and for Santiago de Cuba increased their prices, but those that operate within the city didn’t. How do they explain that? Don’t they all use the same fuel? Also, if in fact the law of supply and demand is functioning, why do all the drivers charge the same price? In this sense there’s no competition. Undoubtedly that law is not the one operating – the one operating is the law of the survival of the fittest: I charge so much and you have to pay. A relationship doesn’t exist between the service demanded and its supply.”
A secondary school teacher outlined the problem saying: “The worst thing is that people don’t want to pay two pesos to travel in a car; they prefer to spend an hour or two at the bus stop. And the drivers prefer to drive all around with no passengers, but they don’t want to lower their rate. Nobody knows how this situation is going to end up, because the passengers need the drivers, just as they in turn need the passengers to subsist.”
There is no alternative
“No one wants the fares to go up,” the owner of a truck said, “but what else can we do with the new taxes, including our mandatory contributions to Social Security. The worst thing is that if taxes continue going up, like people around here say they will, we’re going to have to keep jacking up the prices. We have no other alternative.”
A truck assistant held that the blame lies with the government. “It’s crazy to approve the operation of the law of supply and demand in Cuba. We’re a country of workers with extremely low wages that barely buy us enough to live, much less to pay prices imposed by the free market. What the government should do is give fuel to all the private vehicles and establish a fixed rate.”
“For us, it’s better to work with the fuel guaranteed. That way we wouldn’t have to pay the high prices at the gas stations or fool around with illegal operations when buying gas on the side, though everybody knows where the fuel comes from that’s sold on the black market”
Another assistant blasted the public for being ungrateful. “Thanks to the private vehicles they can get around in the city and travel to other municipalities in the province. If it weren’t for us that would be almost impossible. Anybody who relies on government transportation is lost. People complain that the fares are high, but who’s finding fault in the fee increases, social security requirements and all the rest of what we have to pay now?
Most of the horse-drawn wagon drivers allege that in addition to the tax (which has gone up from 70 pesos a month to 140 pesos), the government doesn’t guarantee either food or ironwork for their animals. Everything must be bought on the outside and this, they say, is also expensive.
The reality is that there is a general dissatisfaction among ordinary people concerning the sudden increase in the amounts charged for private transportation. Moreover, from what I understand, this is not happening only in Guantanamo. In a central province, for example, where horse carts are vital because there’s little more than a single bus route in existence, fares also went up – but from one peso to five pesos! Likewise, in Bayamo a wagon drivers strike took place around the high taxes established by the government of that municipality in Granma province.
We are at a crucial moment in the history of our country. More than a few people believe that we are experiencing the last days of socialism, and that opening the doors of the economy to the free market is the sole alternative to face the impact of the economic and financial crisis.
Those who blindly trust in the Revolution and its leaders — and there are lots of them — believe that we can only escape the current stagnation by fulfilling to the letter the plans and polices traced by the Party. Others like me believe that the solution is in socialism, but in a model with more participation from those below.
This doesn’t involve blaming the government for not satisfying our transportation needs or for establishing a law that impacts low-income people so harshly. Nor is it relevant if the private transportation companies are only interested in their profits.
What’s important is to take the weight off a people who have already shouldered too much. What’s important is that the new economic measures, which are being implemented to mitigate the impact of the global crisis, serve to make the lives of men and women on this island easier to bear. In the end, isn’t this what it’s all about?