The Fuel that Powers Cuba’s Taxis

By Repatriado

A typical Cuban private collective taxi. Photo: Jose Correa,

HAVANA TIMES — Amidst a government campaign to tackle fuel theft, we have learned from official statistics that private taxi drivers are buying an average of only half a liter* of fuel per day from state-owned gas stations, which are popularly known as CUPET, and the only ones authorized to sell oil products to the public.

The vast majority of our private taxis are US cars from before 1959, which are ideal for this service because of their robust structure which are able to resist Cuba’s beat-up streets, and also allows them to carry five passengers while modern vehicles only allow them to transport four at a time.

Most of these cars use Mercedes Benz, Hyundai, Toyota or Peugeot diesel engines, bought from Cuban state companies who buy them at scrapyards in Latin America, Africa or Europe.

Any of these diesel engines taken from one of these scrapyards costs the taxi driver US $5,000 more or less plus how much it costs to repair it because, as I said, these engines were removed and ready to be scrapped when the Cuban State bought them to sell them internally. Sometimes, the only part usable is the engine block and they have to buy the rest wherever they can.

These engines can travel between 10-12 km per liter on average, which means that Cuban taxis only travel 5 km per day legally (paying 1.1o CUC/USD per liter). The rest of the time, they are running on stolen fuel (that goes for .33 to .50 cents CUC). This might seem like an exaggeration to those of you who don’t know Cuba, but what really strikes me is the fact that there are still people who buy diesel from the State.

Private taxi drivers buy the fuel they use from public employees who have an allocated quota, these include truck drivers, water tankers, urban buses, ambulances, funeral cars, fire engines, tow trucks, garbage collection trucks or any state-owned vehicle.

State drivers are masters in the art of not using the fuel they’ve been assigned in order to sell it complicit with their bosses, and that’s because not even company managers can get by on their salaries and selling fuel is one of the most important hustles of all of those who control a small slice of this cake in one way or another.

Embezzling fuel means that it is no longer serving its original purpose which omniscient ministers have outlined, which is reflected in our corrupt national economy, unable to function because it is being bled dry with this constant theft.

Even though I am talking about fuel in this article, I could well be talking about light bulbs, computer parts or toilet paper… Whatever is available is sold illicitly.

The root of this widespread corruption is an outdated centralized and planned economy which is incapable of distributing resources in a rational manner because it wants to be disconnected from market indicators, using absurd price policies based on unrealistic and always unfulfilled revenue plans.

The totalitarian Party/Government’s response is always the same: more control, more inspections, more criminal procedures. In Fidel’s time, they even did the most absurd thing and fired CUPET gas station employees to then replace them with an army of “social workers” who obeyed his direct orders.

However, necessity is the mother of inventiveness and as long as exploited Cuban workers have something to sell, they will sell it because they have to buy almost everything at excessively expensive state-owned stores, where there is almost nothing left to buy… Guess why!

There isn’t a single control that can’t be avoided, a single inspector who isn’t in as much need as those being inspected, or a single person who has an ounce of ethics left after being forced to live off of bribes.

The government reducing its fuel prices isn’t an option either because no matter how much they reduce it, thousands of workers earning a joke of a salary will also reduce their price so they can sell it illegally and make a living.

Cuba’s centralized economy simply doesn’t work, it never has and after 60 years of trying, it seems it never will. All of the government’s specific policies to correct this situation once and for all have proven to be ineffective because they are doing what they always do, putting the symptoms into check as if they were the evil ones, while they glorify the disease as a just, sustainable and prosperous system.

The unfortunate US embargo (our professional excuse-givers’ favorite excuse) can’t really be used in this instance because oil mostly comes from Chavista Venezuela, a lot less nowadays it’s true, but the situation was exactly the same when Cuba received great quantities and then reexported it.

Right now, the water is troubled for illegal fuel sellers and buyers, but we all know how our government works: they will put on a great media show about this issue for a few days, they’ll lock up a few people and soon they’ll turn their fake attention to something else with the same hollow momentum they always do. And us Cubans? Business as usual.


*  These figures refer to Cienfuegos, but they can be extrapolated to the whole country because theft is widespread.


One thought on “The Fuel that Powers Cuba’s Taxis

  • Wonderful description of how the Cuban ‘economy’ actually operates. All those cars that are owned by the wide variety of State organizations and driven by the favoured are the source of the illicit fuel purchased by the private taxi drivers. It would obviously be very easy for the State to correlate fuel consumed by each car with mileage recorded. But, doing so would antagonize those upon whom the system depends. The State is actually acquiescing to the method by which their key supporters gain their higher incomes. The newest car in our community – a Peugeot, is suitably driven by the mortician.
    ETECSA also runs Peugeots – buying Peugeots both service vans and cars. Could there be a link between Raul Castros visit to the Elysee Palace in pre-Macron days and ETECSA in which he has a personal interest buying Peugeots rather than the junky Geelys provided to CubaCar for rental at extortionate charges to tourists – who then have to purchase 93 octane fuel at an exorbitant price from Cupet rather than the cheaper 84 octane fuel which would be perfectly suitable for a Geely?

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