14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 November 2017 — Several impounded trucks and numerous drivers demanding respect for the law have been the results of the stiffening of police controls, in recent weeks, on the transport of agricultural products in the municipality of Alquízar, located in Artemisa province.
Around a dozen truck owners complained to 14ymedio this weekend that they had suffered harassment from the authorities, including confiscation of their merchandise and the impounding of their vehicles for several days, as punishment for transporting agricultural products to the markets that, unlike the state markets, operate on supply and demand.
For several weeks, and especially after the passage of Hurricane Irma and the subsequent problems of food shortages in several provinces, private carriers have seen an increase in police actions against them.
On the roads on the outskirts of the Artemisa towns and on the roads that lead to the city of Havana, the police presence has multiplied. “Every time they see a truck with a private license plate, they stop it to find out if it is carrying agricultural products,” says an Artemiseño driver who preferred anonymity for fear of reprisals.
When a vehicle transporting that type of merchandise is impounded, the products are diverted to the state distribution networks and the driver is fined. “They do not allow us to make a living and we have lost thousands of pesos between confiscations and the impounding of our trucks,” the source says.
In response to the police controls they label as “excessive,” private truckers in the area now travel with a copy of the Official Gazette in the glove compartment of their vehicles, so they can show it to the police in support of demands that they be allowed to transport food, vegetables, fruits and grains.
The document these drivers turn to is Decree Law No. 318, which came into force in 2013 and regulates the transport of agricultural products. This law establishes the right of owners of private trucks to enter into contracts to carry agricultural products.
In 2013 the official media said that the measure sought to “unleash the obstacles of the productive forces” and that it would allow producers and marketers to take advantage of the laws of supply and demand, once they had fulfilled their social commitments to the state.
The legislation, which was then presented by the authorities as “the definitive solution” for the problems of distribution, is not being respected in Alquizar, according to the testimony of several truckers consulted by this newspaper.
Eduardo Ramos Suárez, owner of a Mack truck manufactured in 1956, states that the police chief of Artemisa insists that “this law does not work” and the mere act of evoking it is considered by the official as demonstrating “a lack of respect.” The driver, however, claims that they have not been informed of a new regulation that repeals the provisions of Decree 318.
On the night of Tuesday, November 14, Ramos left in his truck from Alquízar heading to Pinar del Río with a shipment of yucca, taro, banana, fruit, cabbage and sweet potatoes. He was accompanied on the job by a small farmer with a self-employed worker’s license as a “selling wholesale buyer.”
A National Revolutionary Police (PNR) patrol intercepted the vehicle in the neighborhood of El Portugal, both were arrested and slept that night in the cells of Artemisa station. The merchandise was sent to the state-owned Acopio company for distribution in state markets.
Acopio has acted for decades as an intermediary between private farmers and the state. The entity buys a good part of the merchandise at prices that the producers denounce as being very low, and it is in charge of selling it in the markets managed by the state.
In addition, since the end of 2016 price caps have been applied to agricultural products, a practice that has spread throughout Artemisa and finally also been extended to Havana, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and other provinces.
“I was treated like a criminal and to be able to leave they forced me to agree to sign in without fail every Tuesday, as if I were a dangerous criminal,” complained Ramos, who makes a monthly payment to the National Tax Office (ONAT) of 585 pesos as a tax on his activity as an independent worker.
The stop went badly for Ramos in another way as well. When the police stop a vehicle, they can hold it for two or three months during the investigation. In his case, the truck he drives is being “stored,” as of that moment, at the Alquízar Police Station.
During the time the vehicles are being held, the drivers must continue to pay the fees on their carrier licenses to ONAT. “The PNR refuses to give us a paper that attests that the truck is in the station, which would mean we would not have to pay the license fee during that time,” explains Ramos.
Faced with this situation, the driver has more questions than answers. “Why, if I pay for a license to be within the law, do they prevent me from doing my job?” he protests. “It seems to me that the state is cheating me out of my money. What can I do in my country to work decently?”
Onelio González, another private transporter who has owned a 1948 Ford truck since 1978, has also denounced the situation to the inspectors of the Ministry of Transport, popularly known as “los verdes” (the greens). The officials say that the police should not keep the trucks and so avoid the owners suffering losses.
Despite the injustice they claim to be experiencing, most carriers prefer to remain anonymous to avoid further punishment. In contrast, Eduardo Ramos shows his face and does not hesitate to show this newspaper his truck, locked behind the bars of the station.
The courage of this driver may come from what he has experienced in recent years. In 2006 he left Cuba illegally from a point near the port of Mariel and after living a year and three months in the United States decided to return, also by sea.
On the other side of the Straits of Florida, he drove another Mack truck but this time in the ‘90s. “I used to go where I wanted, I paid my taxes and nobody ever messed with me,” he recalls now.
This “round-trip rafter,” who spent 35 days in the dungeons of Villa Marista – where political prisoners are kept – and almost a year in prison for returning to his own country, does not understand why it is so difficult to start a business and make his way honestly. “I’m Cuban and I want to stay here with my truck, why don’t they let me work?”
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.