Iván García, 15 February 2017 — Decidedly, equanimity isn’t one of Pastor’s strong points. He’s an industrial engineer transformed into a private taxi driver, and six days a week he drives a 1954 Dodge with a body from a Detroit factory, patched up a couple of times in a Havana workshop and improved with a German engine from a Mercedes Benz, a South Korean transmission and a steering wheel from a Lada of the Soviet era. With this car he operates on a fixed-route as a shared-taxi.
This mechanical Frankenstein is the livelihood of Pastor, his wife, four children and two grandchildren. “When I stop driving, it’s felt in the house. So I have to be driving 12 or 13 hours daily. My family and even my in-laws live from my almendrón (old American car). The government considers us taxi drivers as tycoons, newly rich. But that’s not true,” says Pastor, while he drives his taxi through the narrow Monte Street in the direction of the Parque de la Fraternidad.
At the end of the trip, he parks very close to the Saratoga Hotel and enumerates details of the collective taxi business in Havana. “There are two types of taxi drivers. Those who own their car, like me, and those who lease it to someone who owns five or six cars and makes money renting them out. We all pay the same tax, which the State raises each year, by using some ruse,” he comments, and he adds:
“The study that ONAT, the National Tax Office, did, which controls private work on the Island, is very elementary. Its calculations are removed from reality. The deductions for the time we aren’t working are erroneous. Sometimes the car has to be in the shop for two or more months.
But the transportation problem, which the government tries to blame us for, is something that they haven’t resolved. If my business is one of supply and demand, then no one should stick their nose into my prices. It doesn’t concern the State. If they want to improve public transportation let them buy hundreds of busses and taxis, so they can see how low prices have fallen,” says Pastor, who, as we’re chatting, becomes impassioned, and more than a few swear words sprinkle the conversation.
“This can only happen in a dictatorship. If they really want things to get better they would have had a dialogue with us, the taxi drivers, who in the capital alone number more than 10,000. Compadre, the State doesn’t give a shit about helping us. They don’t give us so much as a single screw. We pay them everything. What would have been a good solution? To sell us gas, which now costs 1.10 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $1.10 US) in the government filling stations, at 10 or 15 Cuban pesos (roughly $0.40 to $0.60 US), and then require us to have fixed prices on a route,” says Pastor, indignant.
If you talk with any of the private taxi drivers in Havana, you will note their barely-contained irritation. “It’s simple: If the government continues fucking with me, I’ll surrender my State license tomorrow and work under the table. Actually, there’s a ton of people who are doing that. They don’t have enough police to be going after 15,000 illegal taxi drivers,” says a taxi driver who drives the Havana-Playa route.
Eliecer, a driver on the Lisa-Parque Central route, explains his accounting. “I drive for a lady who owns the auto. I pay her 25 CUC daily. But I have to pay for repairs and gasoline. After the 600 Cuban pesos that I turn over to the owner, I earn between 400 and 500 Cuban pesos daily. But I don’t have any rest. I kill myself working.”
What especially bothers Osvel, a retired soldier, is the arrogance of the authorities. “What would it cost the government to meet with us and negotiate a good agreement? But no, they do it as they see fit. It’s true that you can earn 10 times what you would working for the State, but you always have to put money aside in case of breakdowns, because the cars are old and need frequent repairs. The easiest way is to force it on people, an old government custom.”
In a note published in the government newspaper Granma on February 8, the authorities divided the city into 30 routes and determined the prices that they think should be charged from one stretch or destination to another in the city.
The other side of the problem is the customers. Eight out of 12 people interviewed said they were upset by the increase in taxi prices in Havana. “The taxi drivers have some nerve. Because they’ve had the balls to double and triple their prices. If they think the government is abusing them, then let them have a strike in the Plaza de la Revolución, but don’t try to get out of it by raising prices and fucking the passenger,” comments Daniel, who says he spent an hour waiting for a taxi on Calzada de Diez de Octubre.
In July 2016, the Regime decreed that prices were going up, and they opened a telephone line for complaints from the population. Many taxi drivers stopped driving for several days, and the majority decided to split the routes. For example, the route from La Palma to the Parque de la Fraternidad, which cost 10 pesos, was divided into two: 10 pesos up to Toyo and Calzada de Luyanó, and another 10 pesos up to the Parque de la Fraternidad.
“The problem is that before, you could get gas on the black market. But since last spring, the government began controlling the fuel that was being stolen from State businesses. Now you have to buy it in CUCs, and it costs more than double than it did under the table. And then they raise the prices, explained a taxi driver.
All those interviewed agree, taxi drivers as well as users, that with these populist measures the government is trying to disguise who’s really guilty and their proven inefficiency and incapacity to design a functional model of transport.
Pastor, angry, goes further. “It’s an undeclared war on private workers. Why don’t they raise the prices for taxis rented from the State? They work almost without using the taximeter and then charge twice or three times as much as they did two years ago. And in CUCs.”
The fleet of modern autos painted yellow that circulate in the city, for use by tourists or citizens with deep pockets, pay 55 CUC daily to the State as a leasing fee.
The government isn’t stupid. They’re not going to start a battle with taxi drivers who report their income. And in CUCs.
Translated by Regina Anavy