Independent Taxi Drivers in Havana Revolt / Ivan Garcia

Dozens of people wait for a private taxi at a taxi-stand in Centro Habana. Image by Juan Suarez from the Havana Times.

Iván García, 14 December 2019 — Without a union to defend them or any organizational structure behind them, thousands of Havana taxi drivers have agreed to stay home in the coming days, says the driver of a dilapidated 1948 Ford with a German engine and automatic transmission.

Let me introduce you to Ignacio (not his real name), a burly guy with a gravelly voice who fires off words at amazing speed and who has been driving twelve hours a day through the Havana’s dilapidated streets for twenty years.

“The decision not to go to work was spontaneous,” he says. “No one ordered it. It’s the result of a confrontation caused by the government, which is trying to reduce our numbers by decree. We have been in their crosshairs ever since self-employment was legalized in 1994.

“In spite of all the serious transportation problems which the government has not been able to resolve, the authorities have refused to sit down with and talk with us to come to some consensus. Last year, when we started charging flat fees for fixed routes, the government decided to impose restrictions without consulting with the taxi drivers. Nothing positive has come out of this war. It’s the people who are suffering.”

According to Ignacio, “95% of the fuel on which the private transport sector relies is supplied by state agencies. It’s not our fault there’s so much corruption. Having to buy fuel from CUPET (Cuba Petroleo, a state-owned company) reduces our profits substantially. Most of our cars are made up of parts from here and there. Given the heavy daily use and the poor condition of roadways, something is always breaking down.

“Since 2017 we have been willing to negotiate with the state in hopes of reaching an agreement acceptable to both sides but they have always refused. What they did instead was threaten to take away our licenses and impose fines. Agents  from DTI (Technical Research Department) and State Security began to harass those who were openly calling for a strike.”

He adds, “Though it didn’t ask us for our opinions, when the government published the new rules a month ago, they did include some things we had been asking for, such as a subsidized price for gasoline and a wholesale market for spare parts. But we have no guarantees and most of us disagree with the requirement to open a bank account.

“At first we have to set aside 80% of what we earned. It’s now been reduced to 65% but that is still very high. It’s also very inconvenient. There are very long lines at the bank to deposit or withdraw money. And banking hours are from 8:00 A.M to 3:00 P.M., hours when taxi drivers are working.

“The regulations for taxi drivers who choose to work without depositing their money in the bank and who don’t receive 220 liters of gas at the CUPET price (around 5,500 pesos) is simply absurd. Since it refuses to have an open dialogue with us, the government has left us with only one option: to not go to work.”

Gisela, a government ministry employee who frequently uses collectively owned taxis, says, “The problems with privately owned transport began more than a year ago and have gradually been getting worse. The straw the broke the camel’s back happened last Friday, December 7. I spent three hours on Tenth of October Avenue and only six or seven private taxis went by, all of them full. The only options were to struggle with the buses or find a cooperative taxi. The government should talk to the drivers because they don’t have ready solutions to the ongoing transportation crisis in the capital.”

The regime’s response has been to look backwards. Minister of Transportation Adel Izquierdo assures the press that “before year’s end, four hundred microbuses from twelve locations and ninety buses, sixty of them articulated, will be put into service.”

The announcement has led to increasing complaints from Havana residents who note that, if authorities had vehicles in reserve, they should not have waited until the situation reached its current extreme.

Posts in official digital media criticize authorities for their inability to manage the public transport system. Pedro, a Havana bus driver with forty-years’ experience, believes, “These measures are just a band-aid. In the 1980s the city had 2,500 buses and 5,000 to 6,000 government-run taxis. Now there are only 700 buses and 200 taxis. That’s not enough to meet the demand of more than a million passengers a day. And though 12,000 almendrones* have been added in the last two or three years, it’s still not enough to meet demand.”

André, a transportation specialist, notes, “There’s nothing wrong with the way the main bus routes P and A are laid out. But for a P route to function properly, there should be thirty buses coming every five to eight minutes. That’s not happening. At the moment there are more than 200 buses out of service due to a lack of spare parts. China stopped selling them to us due to unpaid bills.”

Arturo, the shift manager at the Santa Amalia terminal in Arroyo Naranjo, reports that on December 7, before the strike was announced, “Transmetro buses and school buses are added to the routes.” On that day police cars and plain-clothes agents patrolled the area surrounding Fraternity Park, where various independent taxi routes converge, trying to pressure independent taxi drivers.

“They took away my DSE (Department of State Security) card and threatened me, saying they could decommission my car. I used the excuse that it was broken,” says a taxi driver who works the route from Fraternity Park to Playa.

“These people are tightening the screws on us. They mean business and are trying to pressure us to work under their conditions. Most of us are not going to accept that. It has been reported that the government had changed or cancelled the regulation it was going to apply to self-employed workers and independent artists, so I don’t understand why they are taking such an aggressive stance with us.”

For Ignacio, who drives an old 1948 Ford, it is a matter of resisting. “If we insist on our rights, the government will change strategy. But we have to keep shouting,” he says.

In the first eight months of his mandate, the hand-picked president Miguel Díaz-Canel has demonstrated that he knows how to listen. And also how to retreat if the circumstances require it. At least that’s what he expressed on Twitter on 7 December: “There is no reason to believe that rectifications are setbacks, or to confuse them with weaknesses when listening to the people.”

*Translator’s note: Restored 1950s American sedans used as taxis by their individual owners.