Private Transport Drivers in Central Cuba Demand End to Excessive Controls / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

An "almendrone" -- old American car used as a fixe-route shared taxi (14ymedio)
An “almendrone” — old American car used as a fixe-route shared taxi (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 9 August 2016 — Private trucks covering the stretch between Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus remained out of service during the weekend and Monday in response to new demands from the authorities. For several days, at checkpoints along the road drivers have been asked to show an invoice for the purchase of fuel in state service centers, a move intended to discourage them from resorting to the illegal hydrocarbon market, 14ymedio’s reporter Jose Gabriel Barrenechea told this newspaper.

As of noon Monday, “not a single truck” had passed on the route which also serves intermediate towns like Placetas and Cabaiguán, a decision the private drivers of both provinces made together in protest against increased controls by the police.

This kind of transport is very popular in the area and moves thousands of passengers every day, in old trucks reconditioned to move people. The situation got worse this weekend with the celebration of carnivals in Santa Clara, which significantly increased the number of travelers in the region.

There was a huge crowd of people at the Sancti Spiritus terminal on Monday around noon. The truck drivers refused to provide their services, explaining that last Friday a group of private drivers was detained at the provincial delegation of the Ministry of Interior.

The arrests occurred at several operations at checkpoints on roads connecting Santa Clara with Sancti Spiritus, where the carriers were required to show proof of having purchased their vehicle’s fuel through the Cupet chain of state gas stations.

Ubaldo, 53, one of the drivers who serves the route and who has refused to work for the past three days, told this newspaper that the business does not make enough to buy fuel at Cupet because a liter is nearly 30 Cuban pesos, and the same amount can be bought illegally for about half that. “Nobody wants to drive the road because the fares are the same and we don’t do charity,” he says.

Most of the gas that is sold in the informal market comes from state enterprises [i.e. is illegally “diverted” at various points], which in recent months have experienced up to 30% cuts in their fuel assignments because of the tense economic situation in the country.

Given the crowding of passengers at interprovincial terminals and various points between Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus local authorities yielded to pressure after noon on Monday and called the truckers one by one to ask them to make the trip and guaranteed that no one will ask for proof of payment.

Some of the self-employed saw this decision as a small victory and returned to work Monday afternoon, but others, more distrustful, have preferred to wait to verify that the controls have been ended. “I do not want to lose money nor my license,” Raymundo, who owns a Ford truck that regularly makes the trip from Villa Clara to Trinidad told this newspaper.

State buses in the region are not adequate to meet the demand for interprovincial travel. From the bus terminal in Sancti Spiritus vehicles leave five times a day – at 5, 6, 7 and 10 am and 2 pm – bound for Santa Clara, but they suffer frequent breakdowns and technical glitches.

Transport managers and specialists in the area are studying “setting caps” on the prices of private transport, as was done in the capital, according to sources in Villa Clara’s provincial government. The authorities, are hoping to counter the rising fares by also bringing in a fleet of new “Diana” brand buses assembled on the island.

An "almendrone" (14ymedio)
An “almendrone” (14ymedio)

In Havana, the picture is not very different. Desperate customers crowding corners to board a shared fixed-route taxi and workers who need more than three hours to get home at the end of the working day are scenes that are repeated everywhere. The imposition of price controls for “almendrones” (the old American cars used in this service, named for their “almond” shape) has contributed to the transport crisis, which interferes with daily life in the Cuban capital.

Passengers see this as a test of strength between the government and the self-employed transportation providers, a confrontation where the private operators seek to overcome the fare restrictions, and the authorities try to control the rising prices the sector has experienced since mid-June.

The shortages at the gas stations regulated by the State contribute to the problem. Of the five gas stations in Havana’s Vededo district 14ymedio visited this Sunday, only one, at 25th Street and Avenue of the Presidents, was open for business. El Tangana, at the corner of Malecon and Linea, and the station at 17th and L, as well as the station at Linea and D Street all remain closed for lack of supply.

An article published last Thursday by the official daily Granma recognizes the reduction in the number of private cars that make up a major part of the transportation routes within the capital city, due to the drivers’ response to the freezing of rates on July 14, a decision taken by the Provincial Administration Council in Havana.

With the application of Agreement 185, which established that self-employed drivers could not raise their fares and must adhere to the fares in effect prior to July 1, drivers have chosen to shorten their routes or significantly curtail their working days, as recognized by Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party.

“Before, I could take just one car from my house in Santiago de las Vegas,” a passenger told this newspaper. “Now I have to take two vehicles, one to Sports City and another to the end, so the trip costs me twice as much,” the woman lamented, who said the government thought it had found a solution to the price increases caused by a reduction in the supplies of fuel in the informal market. However, she says, “what has happened is that the drivers have split the routes and no one can force them to run the whole way,” explains the irritated customer.”

Of the more than 496,400 people who in January of this year were “self-employed,” at least 50,482 are dedicated to the transport of cargo and passengers.