14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 25 June 2019 — In small cafe, located only a few yards from the Monaco Cinema and one of Havana’s most prominent private taxi stands, an employee and the cafe’s the meager clientele confirm what everyone already knows. The cab fares in the vintage 1950s cars known locally as almendrones have risen so much that customers must now choose between a pizza or a shared-taxi.
Last October the Provincial Administrative Council began an experiment that involved new rules along with economic and fiscal incentives for self-employed workers in the transportation sector. In December a package of measures took effect which regulated where they could drive, the sale of gasoline and the locations where they could pick up passengers.
Unhappy with regulations they considered to be overly restrictive, taxi drivers went on strike. For almost a week, the familiar 1950s vehicles, which have long been a mainstay of Havana’s urban landscape, were barely visible on the streets. Many drivers later returned to work but under guidelines that were not strictly legal.
A ride that used to cost 20 pesos was now being divided into two, three and even four segments. Customers were now paying 10 pesos per segment. In the best case scenario, the fare was double what a customer had been paying for the entire ride. This trick allowed driver to evade controls by fare inspectors. If a customer filed a complaint, the driver could claim he had never charged the passenger more than 20 pesos a ride.
“I work in Old Havana and live in Lisa,” says Monica Puerto, an employee at a privately owned cafe in the city’s historic center. “I’m now paying 40 pesos, twice what I used to pay. But that’s not the main problem because, in the end, I can adapt and pay for it out of my tips. What’s worse is that I cannot find a taxi that will take me all the way.”
“To get to work last Friday, I had to take three different taxis. When I add it all up, I am spending more time and more money,” says Puerto. In response, officials are increasing the number of public transport vehicles, adding twelve-seat microbuses to several routes. Demand is so high at peak hours, however, that bus stops are packed.
“It is virtually impossible to catch one in the middle of a route because people who have to travel long distances know that, if you don’t get on at the starting point, you won’t be able to get on later,” explains a nurse who takes the bus between Central Havana and Playa several times a week. “With my salary, I had a hard time paying for private taxis before but now it is impossible.”
Half hidden under the shadow of a tree on Carlos III Street, an inspector in a blue vest waits for the traffic light to turn green to pull over and inspect an almendron on this route. He stops one with three passengers and asks to see the driver’s papers. While checking to see if everything is in order, he takes the opportunity to ask the passengers how much they are being charged. The customers close ranks with the driver and state the official price.
“The problem we have is that the people themselves are complicit in their own robberies,” explains the inspector to a couple of curious onlookers. “If passengers filed a complaint when they are forced to pay twice the official rate, things would be different.” The same scenario is repeated in the next two inspections.
“Trying to create order has created chaos,” complains a mother carrying her daughter a few yards away. “The problem is not the prices the almendrones are charging. The problem is our salaries.” The woman, a housewife whose husband is a doctor on a medical mission in Africa, believes the battle between the self-employed workers and the government is hurting customers.
In Santiago de Cuba, the same is happening. On Monday, price controls began taking effect on private transport workers, mainly drivers of motorcyles and private delivery trucks with seats added to them.
Mayra Perez Gonzalez, vice-president of the provincial administrative council, has argued that the new fares are the result of work by a “multi-disciplinary commission” that seeks a “balance between the service [drivers] provide and the purchasing power of our people.”
To keep drivers of private vehicles from charging the old fares, police officials have posted uniformed officers at stops to make sure the five-peso fare limit on private trucks is being observed. “The stops are packed and there is no way to get from one point to another,” complains a Cuban Patriotic Union activist in a Youtube video.
“We already knew that this was coming because, as soon as these rules were took effect in Havana, everyone became irritated. But we thought that maybe the government had changed its mind and wouldn’t impose these prices here,” says Elsa Rojas, a resident of Palmarito del Cauto, which, she claims, “is now essentially incommunicado because of these measures.”
Rojas noted that, on Monday, she was not able to travel to the provincial capital because “there’s no transportation, not public, not private… A truck stopped at a spot far from the usual pick-up point but a fist fight broke out over who was going to get into it and the driver warned them that he was not going to make the whole trip. This is complicating everyone’s family life and we are the ones who have to pick up the pieces.”
The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.