14ymedio, Claudia Collazo, Havana, 25 January 2021 – From the moment the yellow car turned the corner, the neighbors knew that there was “a man with money” inside — the driver. But in the last year, the neighborhood taxi drivers have only accumulated debt. The payments to rent the car from the State, the fall in tourism, and the monetary unification which has ended Cuba’s dual currency system, all these circumstances are a knock-down blow to what was an occupation that guaranteed a good standard of living.
“When I go out, I tell my wife not to open the door to anyone because I owe thousands of pesos and, if it’s someone who wants to sell us something, we don’t have enough to buy anything either,” Darío, a 39-year-old from Havana, tells 14ymedio. Dario alternates with a partner driving a modern Peugeot linked to the state company Taxis Cuba.
Until two years ago, Darío and his family spent vacations in hotels in Varadero, they were able to redo their bathroom and kitchen with top-quality materials, they bought a small apartment for their mother-in-law, and even allowed themselves a trip to Russia to see Moscow. All of that, the man remembers today as if they were the stories os someone else’s life.
“Now all that is impossible,” he laments. “I no longer want to do this job but the way things are, there is no way to find another way to earn a living.” Since those vacations in the most famous spa in Cuba, problems have accumulated. Some nobody could foresee, like the pandemic; but others everyone could see coming for years.
Darío belongs to a clan of taxi drivers. His father and uncle were among the first to take the helm of the Panataxis, a service that emerged with the Pan American Games in Havana in 1991. Those cars were exclusively for foreign customers but with the decriminalization of the dollar, two years later, nationals could also use them by paying in foreign currency.
The first taxi drivers were considered members of an aristocracy and their economic position was enviable. Direct access to tourists, tips, possible gifts, customers who, on their return visits to the island, would bring the drivers things they ordered, and a lot of skill in ‘sneaking’ rides and conveniently hiding the meter kept the money flowing.
With the Raulista reforms promoted at the beginning of the last decade, the authorities shook up the sector. From being state workers with a fixed salary, they went to a more autonomous system. Currently they must pay 625 pesos a day to Taxis Cuba for the rental of vehicles, be it high or low tourist season; in good weather or in the middle of a hurricane. If they do not pay the amount of the lease, the car is taken away.
The taxi drivers then achieved a long-dreamed of feat: being able to take the car home. But the responsibility for any repairs, scrubbing, changing parts or fixing a simple flat tire also fell on their pockets. That, coupled with the fact that they no longer receive subsidized fuel, has significantly undermined their once attractive earnings.
Although the company must meet certain obligations with the drivers, in practice this has not been the case. “Even the existence of reserve cars was projected so that, when there was any damage, the taxi driver could continue working,” recalls Javier, a driver who laments the deterioration of his Chinese-made vehicle for which he can barely find parts.
Parts replacements are largely based on the “cannibalism” of cars that have crashed or have a fault. “In the company’s warehouse you can barely find motor oil and it is not of the required quality,” he says. “Even many Geely-made cars have had their engines blown because they did not use the right lubricant, especially in Havana’s Agency 4,” he says.
In their new circumstances, the solution so that the money earned doesn’t disappear in lease payments and technical issues, the taxi drivers began to dream of achieving a contract with a state company that needed rides for its employees. The most appealing were those that allowed them to comply with the agreed schedule but left them several hours free to provide service to other customers.
“Many drivers weathered the tourism crisis, which began in the middle of last year,” says Alfredo, a worker for one of the taxi agencies, “thanks to the contracts that the Government to give rides to Public Health workers, and with the Stores to deliver purchases made on-line. But now that the ‘reordering’ has begun, things got screwed up.”
When the taxi driver does not have a contract, he earns less, but he can hide part of his personal income to pay less in taxes. With the arrival of Covid-19, airports at half-capacity and measures that restrict mobility, it has become impossible to pay the lease rate without a contract with an entity.
The worst was yet to come. The government authorized an increase in the rates charged by taxi drivers — which have risen between four and six times compared to the previous price — but in a proportion that they consider insufficient to cover the new costs for car maintenance.
In addition, the ordinance put an end to “the party of contracts.” Before the monetary unification and the elimination of the convertible peso (CUC), in the state business sector the CUC was valued at parity with the Cuban peso (CUP), which made it cheap for these entities to have taxis carry their officials and managers. In reality, the non-state exchange rate between the CUC and the CUP was 24 to one, and with the elimination of the CUC the price of this service has multiplied by 24, which makes it a luxury that the state business sector cannot afford.
“The issue is that as these cars were, originally, primarily serving tourism, their prices were already high,” continues Alfredo, “Now the money we earn is less, and to top it off, with the decline in tourism, because of the pandemic, the consequences have worsened.”
And let’s not even talk about labor rights. Most taxi drivers work more than 14 hours a day, avoid taking vacations and get behind the wheel even when they’re sick. Any pause can lead to their cars being taken away. But, the current tough situation has forced many of them to turn in their cars, as they are unable to continue paying the vehicle lease.
In their neighborhoods, those taxi drivers without vehicles no longer receive visits from the informal vendors who with great frequently used to knock on their doors to sell them all kinds of products. And this has meant an end to the abundant family meals in those houses where the silhouette of a yellow car is no longer there.
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