Ivan Garcia, 26 August 2017 — Shortly after five in the morning, before walking a quarter-mile to the house of the owner of a Ford with a 1948 chassis, Reinerio, 56, wolfed down his egg sandwich and the usual strong breakfast coffee.
The owner of the Ford rents it for 600 Cuban pesos a day (about 27 dollars) and Reinerio drives it for twelve hours through the poorly maintained streets of Havana.
The car was made in the Detroit factories with the scraps of World War II armaments. In Cuba the old American cars are known as almendrones (after their “almond” shapes) and have featured on magazine covers and been the object of comments by foreign politicians who advocate economic reforms on the island.
But you can ask any owner of these last century jalopies what they have had to invent to keep them rolling. Scarcities engender creativity. Thanks to the talents of the local mechanics, the Fords, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Chryslers and other brands of 60 or 70 years ago today serve as taxis in the noisy, dirty and dilapidated Cuban capital, which, despite state neglect, resists losing its charm.
More than a few drivers have crafted nicknames for their vehicles. “I call my Ford ‘The UN,’ because it has pieces from at least fifteen countries,” says Sergio, the owner of the car he rents to Reinerio.
“I have two cars and a jeep that I rent as taxis. For the cars, with five seats, I charge 600 Cuban pesos daily from Monday to Saturday, Sunday is for the driver. If he wants to work that day, the profit is his. The jeep, with ten seats, I rent it for one thousand Cuban pesos a day. I only have three drivers, people I trust. They decide how many hours they want to work. The fuel is bought by them,” says Sergio.
Reiner checks the engine, fuel and oil before getting behind the wheel. The interior of the car is upholstered in black with white trim. Glued to the front windshield is an American flag and a plastic crucifix. When he arrives at the Calzada de Diez de Octubre, he begins to pick up passengers. It is time to turn on the audio equipment, almost always with an unbearable reggaeton at full volume.
“I try not to kill myself at work. There are good days and bad days. On average, driving twelve hours a day, I get 600 Cuban pesos of profit. But any botero (literally ’boatman’ as taxi drivers are called), be it the owner of the car or someone who rents it, knows that you have to have a reserve for when the car breaks down or you need to buy tires or spare parts. In my case, those expenses are split half-and-half half with Sergio, the owner,” says Reinerio.
Before becoming a private taxi driver, Reierio drove a ‘guagüita*’ in a state company. His monthly salary was 300 Cuban pesos (less than 14 dollars). “Today, with the money I earn, my family has breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as clothing and personal hygiene. Once a year I rent a week in an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero or one of the cayos. Do you think that’s a luxury? Compadre, that’s the most normal thing in the world in any country where you break your back working,” says Reinerio.
When asked about the new measures that the State intends to implement toward private taxi drivers in Havana, getting them to join transport cooperatives through the incentives of selling the fuel at subsidized prices and spare parts (if any) at a 20 percent discount, Reinerio responds angrily:
“Nine out of ten taxi drivers will not join a cooperative. Man, this government has never been good. This is a way to control you. They are afraid of us. The taxi drivers have been surveyed and most have put their foot down and we will continue to charge the rates we understand. I prefer to buy fuel in the CUPET (state network) and operate the routes and set the prices that I consider convenient. This idea of selling parts at a 20 percent discount is a bad joke. In foreign currency stores parts are sold at prices that are taxed at 300 percent, and unless it’s an emergency, taxi drivers buy the parts and tires from people who bring them from abroad and sell them much more cheaply than the state does.”
Private work has never been looked on favorably by the the Castro brothers’ autocracy. Economic independence, the possibility of saving money and not being affiliated with a union — which is more like a foreman than a union — transforms the man or woman who up to that moment has been obedient, indoctrinated and dependent on a state salary to eat, clothe and entertain themselves, into a free human being.
That autonomy is a worry to the olive -green regime. The majority of the 900 thousand Cubans who were able to be tourists in their own country and the more than 700 thousand who traveled abroad in 2016, and with their efforts paid for a cruise or a stay in Punta Cana, they are private workers.
Of course, it is a myth that they earn money hand over fist. Impossible, with huge taxes and the audits of the police court. But the more than 560 thousand self-employed perceive that they live better by depending on themselves.
Their salaries are triple the state salaries and they do not have to attend the tedious meetings of state workplaces to celebrate the 91st birthday of the late Fidel Castro or sign a pamphlet in support of the dictatorial Constituent Assembly convened by the insufferable Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
“Better that I never work for the State any more. If they want to remove the private taxis, they will have to take off the mask, and not try to make up more stories or camouflage mechanisms whose goal is to control us. The government always looks for a way to fuck us over,” says Reinerio, while maneuvering over the potholes in Calzada de Diez de Octubre.
The dozen taxi drivers consulted for Diario Las Americas suspect that the government intends to put them out of business using as a pretext the illegal purchase of parts and fuel from a state agency and for allegedly violating the rules of private employment, declaring income lower than what they receive.
“This government has not lasted 60 years on a whim. They have good memories and they haven’t forgotten the strike the taxi drivers wanted to hold and our not giving in to their demands,” says Reinerio.
Now, the drivers fear, the regime is coming for them.
Translator’s note: The word for bus in Cuba in guagua (of disputed origin); guagüita is a diminutive of that term.