Ivan Garcia, 18 February 2017 — Seven in the morning at the bus stop at Acosta Avenue and Poey Street, in the dense La Vibora neighborhood in southern Havana. Almost a hundred people are waiting for the No. 174 bus to Vedado.
While waiting for the bus, some take the opportunity to have a coffee from the roving coffee-seller. Others breakfast on bread with croquette or an egg sandwich from a private cantina, continually looking at the bus stop, in case a ‘guagua’ (bus) shows up.
Also at Acosta and Poey, some 40 people are in a line waiting for their turn to catch a shared-taxi to Vedado. Jaime, a maintenance worker in a polyclinic, can’t give himself the luxury of taking taxis.
“In the morning the taxi driver charges twenty “reeds” (Cuban pesos, CUP) to Vedado. Since I work in Playa, I have to take a second taxi for another 20 pesos. The return is the same. Eighty ‘coconuts’ to come and go from work, and I only get paid 20 a day. If I take a taxi I can make the trip in an hour, and if I wait for the bus, it’s three hours coming and going. Many documentaries, books and recorded chats about the life and work of Fidel Castro, but the government spent 60 years without being able to solve the transport problem. This is crap, brother,” says Jaime, notably angry.
If you want to meet a Cuban ruminating on the horrors of Castroism, visit him at home during a blackout, or ask him about the supposed benefits of socialism at the bus stop crammed with people.
At best, he relaxes at a popular pachanga (party) with some cheap beer and infamous rum, with reggaeton or aggressive timba in the background. But when it comes from moving from one place to other in Havana, they put on a whole other face.
Like Mireya’s face right now. She’s a kitchen helper at a school. “Oh mother. I leave at 6:30 in the morning to catch a bus. And at 8:00 I’m still at the stop. And when you do manage to get on, you have to keep your wits about you because at least opportunity the pickpockets will lift your wallet. And don’t even talk about the perverts. They shove themselves up against your ‘package’ from behind like you’re their wife. The other day some shameless guy was so hot he took it out and masturbated in plain sight,” said Mireya, talking openly to everyone around her.
The lines at the butcher shop to buy “chicken for fish,” or to do legal paperwork, or to wait for public transport, have become a kind of people’s plaza where a journalist, politician or specialist in social topics could take the pulse of a nation. Two years ago, the president of Finland disguised himself as a taxi driver to learn his compatriot’s opinions about his management of the state. That would be a good example for the Cuban authorities to follow.
Managing efficient public transport, be it land, air, rail or sea, is something the olive green junta that governs Cuban can’t get done.
Fidel Castro, today feted for his extensive anti-imperialist discourse and his role in the decolonization struggle of Africa, was never able to design a working transportation system for the island.
Havana, with its million and a half inhabitants, and a million foreign tourists and illegal visitors from other provinces, probably features among the worst cities of the world to get from one place or another quickly and cheaply.
In the 1960s, Fidel Castro acquired three thousand Leyland buses in Great Britain for urban and interprovincial transport. But it wasn’t like that. In the following decades, they were bought in Spain, Japan, Hungary, Brazil and China.
In Havana it has always been an odyssey to travel by bus. At its best, there were more than 100 bus routes in the capital and 2,500 buses plus a fleet of 4,000 taxis, bought from the Argentina military dictatorship, although they never finished paying for them.
With the coming of the Special Period in 1990, the closest thing to a war without bombs, public transport experienced its real death throes. The “camels” — a monster patented by some sadistic engineer — were container trailers outfitted with seats and pulled by a semi-truck tractor unit that could carry 300 people each, packed like sardines in a can.
Havanans still remember the memorable brawls inside the “camels,” worthy of an Olympic boxing match. Those steel boxes were saunas in the tropical heat and according to street legends they served to procreate dozens of kids of unknown fathers.
If every Cuban state official had to pay a penny for every revealed lie, believe me, there would be a legion of new rich on the island. Many thought it was a bad joke, but in 2014, the government, in complete seriousness, after authorizing the sale of Peugeots at Ferrari prices, announced that they were going to use the profits to create a fund to buy buses to improve urban transport.
Three years later not a single Peugeot 508 has been sold. Logically, you don’t have to have a Nobel in economics to know that no one is going to pay the equivalent of 300,000 dollars for a touring car. And in cash.
Thus, ordinary Cubans like the worker Jaime and the cook Mireya, are still waiting two hours to board a city bus. Until all those lovely Peugeots are sold.