Pedicabs, A Battle For The Streets / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Pedicab in Havana. (14ymedio)
Pedicab in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, 16 May 2016 — A fine drizzle falls on the city and Felix, a pedicab driver for 22 years, takes advantage of the chance to take a break. Beside Havana’s Capitol building the man recalls a protest held last Monday by a group of his colleagues in the Plaza of the Revolution. They were demanding the right to use several streets that are now closed to their tricycles, along with less harassment from inspectors.

From a pocket in his fanny-pack he extracts a wad of papers and displays them with chagrin. They are the traffic fines that have been imposed on him so far this year, some thirty folded gray papers from the many he displays. Every one bears a stamp where we can read the word “paid.”

“Every day I have to keep all these receipts with me,” the man explains, and recalls that once he had to spend three nights in the police station because the data base of traffic fines hadn’t been updated with his information. “They work very badly, sometimes after paying, your name still shows up on the list of the defaulters,” comments Felix.

While he details the police harassment they receive, another pedicab driver arrives. The driver, Alejandro, joins the conversation and points out that even though they pay for a license to do their work, they don’t have “the right to travel on many of the important streets, like Galiano, Reina and Monte.”

Those three major arteries connect several districts and for decades have been the principal thoroughfares for this mode of transport, greatly used by Cubans for short distances. However, the pedicab drivers complain that the travel restrictions have been imposed on them under the justification of moving traffic at a higher speed on the avenues.

Yaseil Rodriguez, who has made his living pedaling for nearly a decade, says that the authorities have informed them that these vehicles move “very slowly.” A justification that does not convince him. “We aren’t allowed on these streets and the horse-drawn carts full of tourists managed by Eusebio Leal are?”

Pedicab drivers in Havana. From left to right, Yasiel Rodríguez, Noslen López y Hector Hernández. (14ymedio)
Pedicab drivers in Havana. From left to right, Yasiel Rodríguez, Noslen López y Hector Hernández. (14ymedio)

Rodriguez enumerates the streets where it is no longer possible to travel in a pedicab: “Monte, Monserrate, Zulueta, Prado, Egido, Industria, San Lázaro, la Avenida del Puerto y Cuba.” This latter “was a street in Old Havana where we were always able to travel without problems.”

The fines imposed for violating these restrictions range from 700 to 1,500 Cuban pesos. The police pay special attention to keeping the pedicabs outside the area around Fraternity Park. But the fines are not the most severe punishment; the worst is having the vehicle held at the police station until the driver pays or clarifies the situation.

Many pedicab drivers consider the application of the law “excessive.” This disagreement led to some forty of them traveling in a caravan to the Plaza of the Revolution on 10 May, with the intention to demand an end “to the abuse” against the drivers. So far they have received no response from the authorities.

For Nolsen Lopez, another young pedicab drivers, the pressure has become unbearable. “You have to travel looking on all sides as if you were transporting arms or drugs,” he said, explaining the stress he experiences during the workday. The man complains of the excessive cost to keep pedaling, because “you have to pay these fines, pay for the license, pay into social security, insurance, and if I get sick I have to use my savings because they don’t give you anything in these cases.”

Among the demands these self-employed workers are championing is also a reopening of the licenses to practice the occupation. The young man says that at the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) it’s been ”four and a half years without their issuing permission to drive a pedicab.” For that reason they must work under the category of “helper,” a condition that limits their work even more.

“If the authorities do not respond on this issue, on Tuesday we will go to the Plaza again,” said Lopez, who did not take part in the first protest. “This time I’ll go because abuse has to end, if more of us go, it’s much better.”