14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 1 August 2014, Havana – When you walk through Fraternity Park, amid the bustle of Havana, you hear the cries of masculine voices calling out possible destinations for trips to diverse places in the capital. Near the Aldama Palace they shout out that there are two spaces left for Boyeros and Santiago de las Vegas. A little further on to the left, under the shade of the laurels, they invite you to go to Cotorro, and on nearly reaching the Capitol they announce cars for Alamar. For the most part they are American cars, Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, made before 1960, with the exception of the odd Lada or Moskvitch, devoted to the singular transport that combines the characteristics of a taxi and a bus.
This type of transport is popularly called almendrones [almonds], which for 10 or 20 Cuban pesos (depending on the distance) run on fixed routes. At the origin points a new figure appeared one day, a character whose job it is to attract clients for the almendrones and whom everyone knows as a “buquenque.”
For a long time buquenques thrived outside the law, charging (chiseling, some say) each driver 5 national pesos for the service of bringing him passengers, but recently the legislation that protects self-employment opened a space for them. Of course it didn’t call them buquenques, but the job appears as number 53 on a list of 201 activities as “Taxi trip manager.” In the “description of scope” the law defines the work content as: “Manages passengers to fill the capacity of vehicles at stops authorized by the corresponding Administrative Board.” If properly registered they should pay the national treasury 80 Cuban pesos every month.
Put this way, one imagines a coat and tie and even a web page to make reservations, but it’s not like that, rather it’s a shouted offer, often unnecessarily loud, where the volume of the shouts, and a certain authoritarian air, almost orders the passenger to get in the car.
A character whose job it is to attract clients for the almendrones and whom everyone knows as a “buquenque.”
The Cuban scholar Argelio Santiesteban, in his singular dictionary The Popular Cuban Speech Today (Editorial Ciencias Sociales, 1997), defines the word buquenque as “pimp, flatterer,” but some of the drivers might define them as a plague of parasites. At least that’s what Agustín Pérez thinks: “When I get to the end of the trip, I don’t stop at the initial stop, rather I pick up passengers along the road, there are always people who need to make a trip between intermediate places. That way I save five pesos and avoid dealing with those guys.”
Oscar Rodriguez doesn’t pay for a license as a taxi driver and so he avoids the inspectors, although he’s calculated that there’s more business along the authorized routes. “The buquenques don’t care if I have a license or if I’m working under the table, what they care about is that I give them five pesos and what I care about is not hanging around the stop.”
The activity of the “passenger manager” extends to the interprovincial environment. So, next to the Havana Bus Terminal you can see them shouting out cities in the interior. The most popular are Pinar del Río, Santa Clara and Matanzas, any further and the trip isn’t profitable. The buquenques are apparently more organized there and when coordinating travel to Pinar del Río, if they discover a passenger wants to go to Cienfuegos or Varadero, they advise the appropriate buquenque, more out of hope of reciprocity than solidarity.
Begging for trouble with drivers and passengers, the buquenque spends hours in the street, often without being able to count on a nearby public bathroom and having to eat whatever comes to hand. He is one of those characters of current times in which the slightest government opening has created mediocre escape valves.
Some accept it as a more or less entertaining opportunity in which they can show off their talent for marketing, as is the case with Leopoldo. “Fifteen days after leaving Guantanamo and without even having a place to sleep here in Havana, I found this job and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Now I’m renting a room and by the end of a year I’m going to buy something. Then I’ll bring the rest of the family. Here, among these wolves, I’ve learned to defend myself.”
Pedestrians pass by indifferent to the dramas and comedies that are woven behind the curtains of this profession, where you have to know how to show a fierce face to your competitors and another, friendly one, to your customers, without ever confusing the roles.