Transportation in Cuba, or the Hours of National Despair

Naty Gabriela Gonzalez

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — I get on a bus and see people run and cling to the open door, trying to keep their heels from being mangled. I see a mother hoist her kid onto her shoulder and grab hold of another passenger’s waist, struggling to hold on to his neighbor with calloused hands. I get to the door and it closes behind me. We all look at each other, repeating the tired phrase of: “It ain’t easy.”

I politely try to squeeze past the crowd and they yell at me, saying there’s no room – that, if I want to get through, I have to jump over them. Someone asks me to let them through and I say nothing. We do this and shove each other around. The driver shuts the back doors and leaves a woman in the middle of the road, who yells, drops her purse and sees the discouraging spectacle of the other passengers, thronging together and going who knows where. Why do I keep quiet? Why don’t I snap back? Why do we shove each other around?

This is not a diary entry, this is a passage of the story that repeats itself every day at the bus stop, when one returns home, when one goes to work, when one goes to university. Many are the debates that Cuba’s public transportation has generated since the Special Period crisis, when it was at its worst (early/mid 1990’s), and following the purchase of Yutong-brand buses from China some years back, which improved the situation considerably for a while.

Five or six years after these buses came into the circulation in the Cuban capital, the situation of public transportation is once again one of the main social issues we have to address and improve, for the benefit of the society – particularly those who do not have 10 pesos to pay a maquina, as people call the Chevrolets and other vintage American cars (from the 1950s or so) that operate as collective cabs with set routes.

Two years ago, to alleviate the transportation situation some transportation cooperatives were set up. These operate small, yellow buses that only carry seated passengers for 5 Cuban pesos. Despite this alternative, we continue to see the same crowded public transportation vehicles, bus stops are still overflowing with people, the waiting time between buses is longer and longer, people arrive late at work, school and for appointments, and other similar situations continue to arise.

All of us have become victims of the stress this creates, in a situation where the bus driver or the person who does not move (because there’s supposedly no more room left in the bus) become scape goats. We look at each other with hatred for taking up a small space in the bus.

Rush hour. Photo: Caridad

I don’t understand why the Ministry of Transportation does not fix the buses that are out of circulation to make more units available to the public and improve transportation some.

Another solution would be to encourage the founding of transportation cooperatives and to create private transportation routes, where public transportation companies can operate, offering services with a fleet of smaller vehicles or buses.

These small transportation cooperatives could pay taxes, which would constitute another source of revenue for the State and, more than help, provide a real break for the Cuban people.

The proposal has been made. The Ministry of Transportation can clear the way for this and keep the Holy Bureaucracy from cursing us, creating alternative, small and mid-sized transportation companies, the SMEs that have yielded so many positive results in Latin America. It could even arrange agreements between private contractors and the State, in the event it doesn’t want to fully privatize transportation. What it cannot afford to do is to continue to maintain a situation which a friend of mine describes as “the hours of national despair.”


7 thoughts on “Transportation in Cuba, or the Hours of National Despair

  • Raul built on the promises of Fidel:
    8th May, 1989
    “A major dairy project will begin this year. In a few months, in 1989, the funds will be available to build 150 dairy farms in Sancti Spritus Province.”
    Fidel Castro Ruz

  • When foreign dignitaries visit Cuba, the Castros are famous for repaving the streets along the route that the dignitary will travel or putting a fresh coat of paint on any buildings they might see along their way. In the same vein, when these Ministers and other high officials actually use the services they are responsible for as you suggested, you can be sure the best and most courteous driver will be assigned the cleanest bus in the yard to drive the route that day. A few photos would be taken and published in Grandma. The Minister would “acknowledge” the few problems that exists and blame them on the “US blockade”. He would declare the revolutionary spirit of Cubans capable of enduring whatever sacrifice these problems cause and promise a glass of milk on every table. Oh wait, Raul already said that. ….

  • Moses, long journey but frankly, we have a longer one in our country with what’s transpired the past few days. I can’t even shed a tear with what these beautiful people went through
    in South Carolina and how forgiving they are. Peace!

  • The basic soviet communist model is based on a barter system. It is not just that central planners are inefficient. The system does a poor job of building capital, a key ingredient in major public or private works. Capital investments; machinery, tools, roads, trains or busses all create efficiency. But how to accumulate the capital to invest if everyone is trading low cost labor for free government services. A store of wealth not built, means nothing to invest.

    The pre-soviet socialist models did not have this fatal flaw. The key problem were the control freaks who adopted socialist thinking to conform to their totalitarian aims. Taking other people’s accumulated wealth and spreading it around sounds like such an easy way to make every one richer. But it has the opposite effect, as wealth to invest is destroyed.

  • Most of the problems that Cubans face on a daily basis are no different than the problems faced by poor people all over the world. Bad public transportation is almost universal. The difference for Cubans is that the solutions available to resolve these problems in Mumbai or Detroit or even Port-au-Prince are not easily available to Cubans, if at all. A transportation co-op or even a privately-owned business would be a straightforward step to taking pressure off the public transportation system. But in Castros’ Cuba nothing is straightforward. There’s a saying in Cuba: All that is not mandatory is prohibited.

  • I wish it were that simple, Anti-imperialist. As usual, the problem is lack of capital. Although the govt. bought thousands of new Chinese Yutang buses about six or seven years ago, it didn’t have sufficient money to buy enough spare parts; hence, already, there is a “graveyard” of the “new” Yutangs, not to mention the older “camels,” etc. The real solution, again not possible in the foreseeable future due to lack of sufficient capital, is to build a monorail system (like that in So.Florida between Palm Beach and So.Miami) radiating out from Habana Vieja and Centro to Playa, with additional branches south, east and southwest, then having buses radiate out from these lines. Same with long-distance transport (i.e. the Autopista Nacional). It stopped abruptly, in Ciego de Avila, in the 1980’s, due to lack of funds. What to do? A combo of raising international funds–loans, not gifts, and with the probability that they’ll be repaid, with interest–and local taxes raised by the growing private sector. Having visited Cuba seven times, sometimes for several months at a time, like Naty, I too have experienced the terrible conditions of riding the Metrobuses in Habana. (Of course I, like others, know of certain tricks, like going to the end of the line, then reversing, or catching the bus at certain early stops, etc. Even these were not enough. At times, I just opted to take an “almendron,” for a CUC or two…but that is not an option for most Cubans, who are trying to survive on $20 to $30 CUC’s/month+whatever else they can raise under the counter!

  • The solution is easy. Just make the minister of transportation and other top officials take the regular public busses to and from work and within three months or less they will find good solutions to the problem. They will see things very differently if they have to get up an extra hour or two earlier and get home an hour or two later.

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