14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 3 April 2019 — “They are tightening the net all around us” laments Heriberto Avila, a driver who plies the route between Santiago de las Vegas and an area near Fraternity Park. “First, they prohibited us from picking up passengers near the Capitol and now they are keeping us away from El Curita Park,” he complains. “We’re losing a lot of money because customers do not know where we are.”
Until it was shut down on Tuesday, the main taxi stop for almendrones — Havana’s emblematic restored 1950s American cars — had been at a park in El Curita. Now private sector transport workers will have to use pickup locations managed by the state. The provincial transport agency announced the measure in a written statement and suggested various alternatives passengers might use. It blamed the closure on repair work being done in the area and on the reorganization of transport services that have been taking place in recent months in the capital.
The measures allegedly are aimed at solving problems related to transportation, which is not operating as effectively as it should. A series of measures took effect last December that has affected workers in various sectors of the economy. These includes self-employed taxi drivers, known as boteros, who complain about the inevitably increasing costs, which affect their customers.
Within days after the regulations took effect, boteros illegally went on strike, pressuring the government and seriously impacting mobility in Havana. Since then, the number of privately owned taxis on the streets has remained low.
The government has tried to confront the situation by introducing newly imported vehicles. Last January a fleet of eighty-nine buses arrived from China along with another fleet of microbuses manufactured by the Russian company GAZ. They provide service between 6:30 A.M. and 10:00 P.M but have had little impact alleviating the transportation problems in a city where, during peak usage, passengers must wait for more than an hour before being able to board a bus.
“I have noticed an improvement in the transportation situation, although only during the hours of lower demand, such as after 9:00 A.M. and before 4:00 PM. That’s when you can see buses with empty seats,” said a retiree on Tuesday as he waited to get from an area near Ciudad Deportiva, the city’s indoor sports arena, to Old Havana.
“The minibuses are very small. They carry only twelve passengers and fill up very quickly at the starting point, so it’s very difficult to catch one along some intermediate stretch,” complains the pensioner. “They are forcing passengers to travel long distances to reach those points.”
Problems remain even for those who resort to private transport. As this publication was able to confirm in a trip carried out over the course of several days, fares for almendrones have shot up, in some cases doubling in price. “Before, I was paying ten Cuban pesos to get to Fraternity Park, to the corner of Boyeros and Tulipán. That stretch now costs me one convertible peso [twenty-four Cuban pesos],” explains Rita, a high school teacher.
“Taxi drivers come by and want to charge me one convertible peso. Transportation is in such bad shape that you have no choice. Either I pay it or I spend hours at the bus stop,” she complains. The price increase is, in her opinion, “a response to official controls but also a result of the decrease in the number of almendrones on some routes.”
Manuel, who until very recently worked near the Palace of Computation* as a buquenque (someone who manages the queue at a taxi stand), confirms the number has fallen. “I had to turn in my business license because the number of boteros had fallen so much and there wasn’t enough business to justify spending hours there for so little money,” he explains to 14ymedio.
“Since the new rules took effect on December 7, many taxi drivers have not returned to work or have decided to give up their business licenses,” he points out. “The reason is that, under these new regulations, they have lost a lot of their independence and must also buy fuel from state-owned gas stations. It’s not worth it.”
Authorities have repeatedly warned that much of the fuel used by private taxis is being siphoned off from the state sector, especially in industries such as sugar. To eliminate the black market in gasoline and diesel, drivers are now forced to use a magnetic card, which records their purchases of the product.
“The formula is simple: Previously, we were able to keep prices lower because we were buying fuel at half the price the state normally sells it. That is now increasingly difficult and the reason customers have to pay more,” explains Juan Carlos, a driver who works the route from the central Havana to the a stop in Playa.
The botero is not worried about losing customers to the state buses. “There are a lot of passengers who want to travel more comfortably and not be crowded into a bus, or who want to transport some merchandise in the trunk, or who just prefer sitting rather than standing. It doesn’t matter if the government puts a hundred or a thousand more buses on the road because private transport will continue to be in high demand.”
Translator’s note: A state-sponsored youth center which offers “the possibility of knowing and applying computation as a branch of knowledge, important for the technological and computer development” in Cuba.
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.