Iván García, 19 July 2016 — At the traffic signal on Infanta and Carlos III, in the heart of Havana, Guenady takes advantage of the red light to thirstily take a swig out of a half-liter of ice water that he keeps at one side of his driver’s seat.
Perhaps the cold water helps to appease his fury. He spends 20 minutes protesting what he considers an arbitariness of the Government that is trying to regulate the prices of the routes taken by the collective taxis [taxis that pick up people and travel set routes, often old American cars].
The man turns off the CD and replaces the Reggaeton with a rant sprinkled with curses and criticisms of the olive-greet autocrats.
“It’s a farce. Those insolent people (the Regime) don’t give us private taxi drivers even a nut and now they come to demand that we establish fixed prices. They have even put up a telephone number so people can snitch on us. Why don’t they put up a telephone number for people to complain about the high prices in the dollar stores and the low salaries?” says the driver of the ancient taxi.
“Where do they put the money that they collect in taxes? Look at how messed up the streets are (and he points to the road). The blame for the poor service of the transport is theirs. Now, the same as with the truck drivers and the middlemen for the agricultural products, they want to set us against the people. If the buses ran every three minutes and there were a flotilla of taxis at low prices, there wouldn’t be problems. They don’t resolve any damn thing, and all they know how to do is prohibit, raise taxes and fuck someone,” insists Guenady, and he takes a small drink of water from the bottle.
Let’s go step by step. The poor public transport service isn’t the fault of the private drivers. It’s been a pending subject since January 1959, when the bearded Fidel Castro arrived in Havana.
There are a few small oases, but in one way or another, urban transport is chaos in Cuba. In the country there is no metro, and the suburban train barely functions.
In the ’80s, a parking lot of more than 2,500 buses, 100 routes and 4,000 taxis didn’t satisfy the service. Later, in the ’90s, the great economic crisis arrived, and with it, the Special Period: blackouts, little food and inflation through the roof. Public transport collapsed. And the high cost of gas provoked owners into keeping their cars in garages.
With the arrival in Miraflores of the paratrooper from Barina, Hugo Rafael Chávez, luck changed for the dinosaurs of the Palace of the Revolution. They exchanged oil for doctors and sports trainers, and the Government began to receive around 105,000 barrels daily of petroleum.
They even began to export part of the fuel on the world market. When a barrel surpassed 100 dollars, the Regime never offered information about what they used that money for.
The owners of automobiles, excepting professionals, were allowed to obtain taxi licenses. Havana was flooded with old United States cars and those from the Soviet era.
Today, according to a transit agent, there are more than 12,000 licensed taxis in operation, circulating in the capital. “But there are about 2,000 that are illegal. With this campaign, it’s possible that there will be more,” he warns.
The taxes on taxi drivers have been increasing gradually. Also the obstacles. “In the ’90s, we paid 400 pesos. Between 2010 and 2013, from 600 to 700 pesos. Now we pay 1,000. And the ONAT [National Tax Administration of Cuba] is always looks for a way to get more money out of us,” points out Roger, a taxi driver on the Havana-Santiago de las Vegas route.
Seventy percent of private taxi drivers rent the cars from their owners. Orlando, the owner of several trucks and cars, gives more details: “There are 30 or 40 people, like me, who are proprietors of small flotillas of cars. And we have set up medium-sized companies with two work shifts. The business gives good benefits. In a month, clean, you can make 90,000 pesos. But we’re in a judicial limbo, because the Government doesn’t recognize us. When they want to fuck us, as you see now, they make us spread our legs.”
Carlos, a sociologist, believes that the Regime’s old trick of confrontation between private individuals and regular Cubans is now worn out. “The private owners are not to blame if a pound of beef, of pork, costs 40 pesos, or if to take a bus you have to wait an hour at the bus stop. The Government should negotiate with them so the people aren’t affected. Then, if tomorrow, for violating the ordinances for fixed prices, they take away the licenses of half the taxi drivers, the transportation crisis will get worse. They attack only one part of the phenomenon but don’t go to the root. And the worst is that they don’t have a short-term solution.”
After General Raúl Castro announced new austerity measures, the urban bus service cut back on their trips. “The P-10 used to have a frequency of 10 minutes; now it’s 25 minutes,” commented a driver at the Santa Amalia terminal, south of the capital.
Raquel, an office worker, considers that they shouldn’t “crush the ’boteros’ [taxi drivers of fixed routes] any more. The few State taxis that exist charge the same. And the dollar taxis have doubled their prices.”
Ricardo, who drives an air-conditioned taxi, says that “practically all the dollar taxis are leased. We’re modern slaves. We work 12 or more hours in order to be paid 55 CUCs daily that we must turn over to the Government. That’s brought with it the increase in prices. A trip from the airport can cost 40 CUCs. It’s as if we were living in the jungle, trying to survive, and the ones who pay for the broken dishes are the people who earn the shitty salaries.”
In the middle of the traditional crisis of urban transport, above all in Havana, the greed of hundreds of private taxi drivers irritates the population. Even the authorities have reactivated a telephone line, 18820, to receive complaints from people who have had to pay more than 10 or 20 pesos, the cost of a trip according to the distance.
Luis Carlos, a taxi driver, says that “we have always bought fuel under the table. Before, at 7 or 8 pesos a liter of gasoline. But, progressively, it’s been going up on the black market, and after the new savings measures, a liter costs 20 pesos. That impacts our pockets. If the State is so generous, I wonder, why is it selling a liter at one CUC when on the world market a barrel of oil costs 30 dollars?”
The summer promises a new struggle between private taxi drivers and the Government. A war, which beyond the victor, always has a loser: the Cuban on the street.
Martí Noticias, July 18, 2016.
Translated by Regina Anavy