14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillén, Candelaria, 15 September 2018 — While horse-drawn carriages are a tourist attraction in the streets of Old Havana, in the municipalities of Candelaria and San Cristóbal, in the province of Artemisa, the authorities impose strict regulations on this popular transport, controls that are worsening the already tense situation of passenger transport.
For more than a year drivers have been forced to travel away from the main avenues, and instead make their way through unmarked alleys in poor condition. Now they must carry out their work almost “secretly,” several of them have reported to 14ymedio.
The thousands of customers who use this form of transport every day also feel that they have gone underground. In a province where very few buses travel the streets, most Artemiseños interviewed say they use these animal-drawn vehicles at least three times a week.
In 2016, the director of the Provincial Transport Company, Juan Carlos Hernández, said that 150 public transport vehicles covering 143 routes circulated in the province, but two years later many of these vehicles have deteriorated or gone out of circulation, according to sources from the company speaking to this newspaper.
Along with this deterioration, the authorities of the area have launched a crusade against horsecarts under the pretext of avoiding bad smells and traffic accidents. The Provincial People’s Power bodies, together with the National Revolutionary Police, also want to avoid having crowds of people waiting to board these vehicles.
Among the measures adopted, carts and pedicabs have been prohibited on the Central Highway, a decision that pushes the carriers and their passengers to explore alternative routes. “What should have been something to improve the quality of life of the residents, actually has become a headache,” laments Yaima, who on Monday uses the carts to get to the polyclinic where she works.
The young woman pays three Cuban pesos (CUP — about 12 cents US) for each trip, which means a monthly cost of about 120 CUP alone in transportation to reach her job; a significant share of her monthly salary which is around 900 CUP. “If I do not travel that way, I do not arrive on time because public transport can not be trusted, it comes along when it feels like it,” says the nurse.
“The measure to kick us off the Central Highway was taken about a year ago” Eugenio, a coachman in the area, tells this newspaper. “Since then people complain because they have to walk more to get to the carts and because the prices went up because now many segments are longer and the streets where we are traveling are in worse condition.”
In the province of Artemisa some 4,567 animal-drawn vehicles have been documented so far, most of them dedicated to passenger transport, according to official sources. However, this figure only reflects those who have a license to exercise this service, while an increasing number of vehicles circulate illegally.
For their part, the self-employed workers who are licensed to work in the sector complain that their needs are not taken into account. “They almost always make us look like the bad guys in the film by charging three pesos for each segment, but nobody calculates the cost of keeping the animal fit,” adds Eugenio.
The coachman regrets that there is no state workshop to fix this type of vehicle, or a market to “buy tires and other spare parts” at a price that is within reach of their pockets. “They ask a lot of us, they control us everywhere but when we demand our rights they do not listen to us.”
So far this year, the Candelaria Municipal Administration Council together with the traffic police and other authorities have had at least two meetings with these workers to analyze their complaints and also those expressed by their passengers. In each meeting, the parties have not been able to reach an agreement.
“They claim that because they’ve eliminated the payment of 10% of revenues at the end of each month, we can charge less to passengers, but they still do not take into account the prices we pay to keep these vehicles rolling,” says Sergio Martinez, another Artemiseño coachman artemiseño.
These self-employed carriers must pay about 186 CUP to obtain the license, to which is added the transit and veterinary permits that are paid monthly. The purchase of a horse cart can come to about 10,000 Cuban pesos and each year the drivers must pay their personal income taxes.
“It does not matter if it has been a bad season, the authorities assume that someone in this job earns a lot and when the tax return is filed many of us get the fines for alleged tax evasion,” laments Mario Nordelo, with more than two decades in the guild.
Earlier this year the National Tax Administration Office (Onat) reported that it will perform 5,500 “in-depth” control actions, including tax audits, in order to detect tax evasion, and to determine with “greater rigor” the debts and penalties and request the application of administrative and criminal measures.
In 2017, Onat detected that more than 60,000 taxpayers — 35% of those who paid self-employment taxes — reported and amount lower than their actual earnings on their personal income tax declaration for a total amount of some 563,000,000 Cuban pesos (CUP).
“Taxes and fines do not let us live,” says Nordelo. “I know coachmen who have had to pay up to 15,000 CUP in fines in a single year and others who have suffered the confiscation of their vehicle and their animal.” The self-employed transport provider thinks that “although many times the responsibility falls on the coachman due to some imprudence, what the authorities are trying to do is to end this service.”
In San Cristóbal, Arsenio Ramírez repeats his routine several times each day. He arrrives at the stop where the customers wait and there he waits until ten people get into the vehicle. “Many people depend on me to arrive on time,” says the coachman in front of a row of teenagers in school uniforms and several doctors in white coats. Four primary schools, a high school and a nursing faculty are located on his route.
“When they made us travel about five blocks away from the Central Highway, we created a union to complain to the Communist Party, but they threatened us with the police and we had to give in,” Ramírez told 14ymedio. “We have organized to clean the area where we park and avoid the urine of the horses being an annoyance, but the police always have a reason to bother us,” he complains.
In recent years there have been numerous strikes and protests by coachmen throughout the island. In all cases the drivers have demanded an improvement in working conditions, tax reductions and permission to travel through the more central streets.
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.