14ymedio, Bertha K. Guillen, Candelaria, June 10, 2019 — The highway connecting Candelaria with Soroa, a town in Artemisa province, is filled with pedestrians. Every day, hundreds of women with children on their backs, self-employed merchants carrying their wares and state-sector workers walk a stretch of road on which public transport is increasingly absent.
“We’re used to it. It’s nothing new for the buses to stop running because of fuel, breakdowns or because they put it to some other use,” says Maria de los Angeles, who walks about 18 kilometers to reach the nearest point where she can hitchhike. “There is no other option than by foot. There are no stores, pharmacies or even a doctor’s office up there,” complains the Artemiseña.
In the last month, the situation has gotten worse due to lack of fuel. As a result, authorities have had to reduce the number of public transport routes, working hours in state agencies and even university class periods to save gas.
The reduction in public transport services began gradually in mid May but by the beginning of June things had gotten worse, leaving the most mountainous towns located along the highways to Soroa, and from Central to San Cristobal, Candelaria and Bahia Honda, without transport.
An employee from the Candelaria’s public transport agency, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained to 14ymedio that, by Monday, fuel supplies were expected to arrive and, based on the amount alloted to the province, transport service should be able to resume. Last month’s supply of hydrocarbons barely covered the first half of May.
A large segment of Candelaria’s population lives along the mountainous Soroa road, where the development of tourism has led to a high demand for mobility between the region and its neighboring towns. In the nearby Cordillera de Guaniguanico nature reserve there are numerous privately owned short-term rentals geared towards tourists as well as local attractions such as its famous orchid farm.
But local tourist developments must still overcome the transportation problem. Communities such as Candito, Soroa and El Campismo are served by only two buses a day. Meanwhile, Los Tumbos and La Comadre, located 25 kilometers from Candelaria, have no public transport service at all.
Additionally, there are the poor conditions of the roads, which are winding in the mountainous stretches, and the price of fuel. As a result freelance taxi drivers are not interested in these routes unless they involve non-stop trips booked in advance, a service focused on tourists and recreational travelers.
“There’s a lot of tourism in this area. There is the highway between Soroa and Las Terrazas as well as a fair number of houses for rent. But taxi drivers want to charge us the same prices as tourists and we can’t afford that. We’re peasants,” says Angel Martinez, another affected resident.
Mobility problems are not plaguing just the tourist towns; they are being felt throughout the entire province. At Artemisa’s main terminal this week, there were major schedule changes to buses traveling to San Cristobal. Though the departure board showed that only two trips had been cancelled, 14ymedio confirmed that at least half of the so-called Diana buses* that operate from of this station were out of service due to fuel shortages.
In the provincial town of Guanajay there is a factory that assembles buses on top of Russian-made chassis. When it began operations, the plant was a hopeful sign for nearby residents, who were tired of the unpredictability of public transport. Now, however, it is lack of fuel that is the problem.
Other towns, such as Bahia Honda, lack any public transport services at all. “There are no buses. Only trucks and vans for 10 and 20 pesos,” reports Rojelio Blanco, who makes the journey to and from Artemisa every day. “At the terminal up to three buses in a row don’t show up. But none of these changes are ever announced so people assume the buses are still running. The situation is really serious.”
“Our top priority is to open or close routes based on demand so that no town is completely without transport,” says Magalis, a terminal employee, who confirms that the last few weeks have been especially difficult for trips from the provincial capital to outlying towns and that, in spite of the adjustments, it has not been possible to maintain service to all the towns.
Faced with this situation, authorities have doubled the number of inspections on the roadways to prevent unlicensed drivers from operating illegally, picking up passengers and charging them for rides. Inspectors are also spot checking licensed taxi drivers to verify where they have purchased their fuel.
On the outskirts of Artemisa, government inspectors, known as azules (or “blues”), have mounted a large operation and levy fines of 1,000 pesos to unlicensed taxi drivers who charge a fare above the allowable limit and 4,000 cuotas to licensed independent drivers who do not have proof of purchase for gasoline or diesel from a state-owned service station.
Some of the inspectors pose as passengers to find out how much a driver actually charges. Most drivers of vintage cars prefer not to risk their licenses and offer only a ride to Havana, which is more profitable for them anyway.
*Translator’s note: Small buses whose parts are supplied by a Chinese company, Yutong, and assembled in Cuba. In 2014 over 930 chassis were sold to Cuba to meet the high demand of public transportation throughout the island.
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.