Ivan Garcia, 27 February 2017 — After working twelve hours driving a vintage 1957 Chevrolet for a collective taxi company on the Cotorro-Central Park route, twenty-nine year old Osdiel sits down to have a beer at a dark bar in the south end of Havana, where he unleashes his frustration over new measures Cuban authorities have adopted.
Without a leader or a labor union looking out for their interests, a large faction of Havana taxi drivers is organizing to overturn what they consider to be arbitrary regulations imposed by the regime of Raúl Castro.
This report will be concise. Havana is a densely populated metropolitan area of more than two and a half million residents with a road network routinely in disrepair and a mass transit system in chaos. In the summer of 2016 the city began regulating prices for private taxi services.
In the Cuban capital there are about thirty designated taxi corridors. These are fixed routes costing between 10 and 20 pesos per ride based on travel distance. The current fleet of taxis, which is operated by licensed drivers as well as individuals who work clandestinely on the sidelines, is estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000 automobiles.
“Sometimes there are more because drivers from nearby provinces such as Artemisa, Mayabeque, Pinar del River and Matanzas come to Havana. That’s in addition to the hundreds of drivers working for state-owned companies who pick up passengers during and after normal working hours to earn extra money,” says Francisco, an official with ONAT (National Office of Tax Administration), an institution that regulates private sector work in Cuba.
Beginning in 2016, along with a rollback of the autocratic regime’s timid economic reforms, the government began meddling in prices that had been determined by supply and demand.
In January of last year the government began a policy of regulating prices for produce. In the last twelve months it has closed 60% of independent farmers’ markets.
The state does not sell fuel or spare parts at wholesale prices to private-sector taxi drivers in spite of the public benefit they provide.
Eliecer, who drives a Soviet-era Lada along the Vibora-Vedado route, explains, “In no paragraph of our contract does it say that the government can regulate prices. We set them based upon supply and demand.”
Before 1959 public transportation in Cuba was efficient but that all ended once Fidel Castro and his bearded men came to power. For almost six decades since then, it has been a pressing issue for the regime. Bus, taxi, rail, shipping and air transportation have been plagued with shortages that have impacted the time and ways it takes to transport millions of people from one place to another within a city or across the country.
Though Havana should ideally have have a fleet of 3,000 buses, there are only about 900 operating. Along the busiest routes such as the P6, P7, P11 and P14, buses should arrive every three minutes during peak hours but only come along once every ten or fifteen minutes. And there is no subway or suburban rail network serving the city.
Three decades ago, the state operated 4,000 taxis and charged modest prices. The fleet of state-run taxis now numbers less than 200 and often are used to provide services to hospitals and funeral homes. These taxis are also rented out, at market rates, to drivers who have finished their shifts.
There is a fleet of some 800 modern, air-conditioned cars which charge in convertible pesos and are used primarily by tourists, foreign visitors and affluent Cubans.
The regime has discreetly launched a small enterprise called Cubataxis, a network of taxis with fares priced in hard currency. Three years ago it began leasing them to drivers. “You get 500 CUCs (convertible pesos) as a loan and every day you have to hand over 55 CUCs to the government. The authorities give us twenty liters of fuel; we have to buy the rest. To meet the guidelines, we have to clock up to thirteen hours a day. We get to keep the car at home and we set the fares,” explains Dagoberto, who drives of a Chinese-made Geely.
For private-sector taxi drivers like Erasmo, this difference matters. “Why don’t they regulate Cubataxis’ prices? Oh, because the government makes money off this business. We fulfill a need in society. We transport hundreds of thousands of people a day. We are doing the work the government should be doing,” he complains.
For a long time drivers who work for state-run businesses have sold fuel at prices lower than those at gas stations. “On the black market a liter of gasoline costs between twelve and fifteen pesos. The government sells it for 28 pesos,” says a private sector taxi driver.
According to reports, the reduction of petroleum imports from Venezuela — deliveries fell from 100,000 barrels a day to 55,000 — is what led to the Cuban government to begin charging its business operations for fuel.
This led to a shortage on the black market, forcing most private-sector taxi drivers to raise prices. A trip that normally would have cost ten pesos was soon up to twenty.
When authorities in Havana ordered a cap on cab fares in July 2016, the response from a large number of taxi drivers was to break up the rides into smaller segments. For example, if a trip from La Palma to Brotherhood Park cost ten pesos, they would split it into two and increase their profit.
Such subterfuge along with the price hikes have irritated large numbers of customers who rely on shared taxis on a daily basis to get around.
“The government took advantage of a bad situation to adopt populist measures that favor passengers. But they didn’t take into account the fact that taxi drivers are the owners of their vehicles and can determine prices. Now that there is a lid on prices, God help you if you are trying to catch a taxi,” says Lisván.
For Osdiel, the owner of a 1957 Chevrolet, the problem is one of negotiation. “The government wants us to do what it wants us to do. But this is not the era of slavery. Most taxi drivers want to sit down and talk, then come to an agreement. My proposal would be for the authorities to sell us a certain amount of fuel at a subsidized price in exchange for them being able to set prices.”
Manuel, a slow talking kind of guy, believes, “The targets of this offensive are the owners of small fleets of cars, jeeps and trucks. They want to screw us over because we make a lot of money. And that’s a crime in this system. Sixty percent of private-sector taxi drivers in Havana don’t own their vehicles. They are salaried workers. I estimate that a hundred or two hundred people own at least four or five cars each and have ten to twelve employees working for them. I own six cars, five jeeps and three trucks. The purpose of these measures is to wipe us off the map.”
For the time being, more than four thousand drivers have decided not to go to work next Monday, February 27. “We will say that our cars are busted or we are sick. We will go on strike. Let’s see what they’ll do then,” says Osdiel defiantly.
The battle between private-sector taxi drivers and the government of Raúl Castro has become like a serialized novel. We will see what the next installment brings.