14ymedio, Havana, 8 December 2018 — “I’m going to the hospital, I have high blood pressure,” “I’m on my way to pick up some customers,” “my wife called me because she has a pain,” were some of the justifications given this Friday by the drivers of shared fixed-route taxis when a inspector stopped them for circulating empty. The conflict with the Government continued on Saturday in Havana, on the second day of the driver’s strike.
For 48 hours the most populated city in the country has been the scene of an unusual work stoppage, led by the drivers of almendrones — as the classic 1950s American cars are called, after their “almond” shape — vehicles that are vital for the transport of passengers. The protest is attempting to kill a package of regulations that went into effect on December 7 that imposes strict controls on the sector.
Mandatory routes, greater supervision over the purchase of fuel, affiliation with a particular pick up point, and the requirement to have a bank account to acquire spare parts, gasoline or diesel, in addition to maintaining a deposit corresponding to the payment of two months’ license fees, are some of the rules of the new legislation that have caused the current malaise.
The government has responded to the strike by reinforcing the state bus routes with new vehicles, but the sidewalks are still full of people who signal to passing taxis, with little or no results.
“They told many taxi drivers that they were going to confiscate their cars if they did not work, so we decided to drive but not pick up fares,” says Yunior, a 24-year-old driver who was inspected by two policemen in the vicinity of El Curita Park in Central Havana on Friday. “They wanted to take me to the station but I told them I was going to look for a cake for my daughter’s birthday and that’s why I could not carry passengers,” he tells 14ymedio.
Supposed family illnesses, emergencies that force the driver to return home, errands that can not be postponed and even an alleged technical breakdown that requires going to the garage, are other justifications used by drivers when the police or inspectors questioned them about circulating without passengers.
On the main avenues of the city the volume of private taxis has been unusually low in the last 48 hours and many of those who moved through the streets did so in the left lane, away from the sidewalks. Desperate would-be riders have had to choose to walk or take crowded buses.
Other drivers prefer less confrontational methods and have continued in service but under their own rules. Some drivers only pick up passengers on pre-arranged trips that are not on regular routes. The secondary streets, where it is rare to see these shared taxis due to the poor state of the roads, have seen higher volumes of the vehicles in the last few days.
“I can not risk losing my license because this is what feeds my family, but I’m moving around El Cerro and avoiding the larger streets,” says Augusto, another driver who joined the strike in his own way. “I’m just driving two or three hours a day and although it’s a big economic hit for my pocket, it’s the least I can do for the others who are doing the strike one hundred percent.”
Rafael Alba, a taxi driver who was arrested last Wednesday and who was warned by the police that they would confiscate his vehicle if he did not go to work, woke up in the early morning of December 7 with a police patrol in front of his house to verify that he would head out to pick up passengers. This newspaper has not been able to communicate with him again, because his phone is “off or outside the coverage area.”
“It’s hard, but today it’s affecting them and tomorrow it can be us,” says Julio Marrero, a 52-year-old engineer who works in the private sector in his own photocopy business. “I have had to walk long stretches because there is no transport, but the drivers are in their right to strike because if they do not do it, next year they will get worse,” he says.
Hundreds of inspectors and policemen, some dressed in civilian clothes, have been deployed throughout the capital, especially in the vicinity of the pick-up points where the almendrones usually begin their route. However, the current legislation does not require self-employed drivers to carry passengers as long as they are on the streets.
Despite the solidarity of many, some customers are annoyed that the strike is happening on very sensitive dates in December when transportation is needed to collect supplies for end-of-year celebrations. “It is good that they protest but the most affected are the citizens because the Government does not manage to reinforce urban transport enough so that Havana is not operating at half strength, as it is now,” a retired woman complained this Saturday, claiming she had waited “two hours” at a stop near G and 23 streets in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.
Laura, from Santiago de Las Vegas, said that she had waited 30 minutes and the cars passed empty and didn’t stop. “When they do stop they tell you they’re not going to take you,” she said.
Another of the drivers’ “tricks” is to transport other drivers or members of their family. They take turns to act as drivers and passengers and “meet the letter of the law.”
“They’re seen to be carrying someone so they don’t go by completely empty, but even with all the backseats empty, they don’t take you,” Laura added.
The call for a strike, popularly known as El Trancón (The Big Traffic Jam), was broadcast among private taxi drivers in Havana and other provinces in the country days before the date the controversial package of measures went into effect. The drivers are demanding freedom of movement, the right to work throughout the country, access to a wholesale market, the right to import parts, and permission to have independent unions, among other demands.
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